Country spitfire Loretta Lynn soars back onto the radar - How White Stripes' Jack White helped to create a magical album

By Chris Willman
Updated April 23, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

There’s something about Loretta Lynn that brings out a protective streak in folks.

Even some really, really old folks, like the ghosts who are said by the singer and other witnesses to haunt that antebellum mansion she owns, sitting just this side of a Civil War battlefield.

Lynn’s museum, stores, dude ranch, and other attractions in Hurricane Mills, Tenn., aren’t yet open for the season, but she’s happy to personally escort a visitor through her Gone With the Wind-style hilltop manse. First stop is the very un-Tara-like, ’70s-style kitchen, unchanged since the filming there of countless Crisco commercials that anyone of a certain age will remember. Down the hall is the parlor where parts of her life were reenacted for the 1980 biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, including scenes where Tommy Lee Jones, playing her husband, Doolittle Lynn, went on a cinematic bender. A few paces away is the liquor cabinet, no longer stocked with Old Charter bourbon since Doo passed away in ’96.

And then right over the stairway there’s a wall’s worth of framed record covers, which Lynn likes to keep just so. She suspects any resident spirits might share her predilection for orderliness, so she warns tour guides not to disturb the display. ”I always had this feeling,” she says.

”Don’t mess with ’em, or the ghost is gonna getcha.” As she tells it, one tour group did breach the velvet rope to ascend the steps and fiddle with the vintage LPs, ”and there was a blonde, standing right here, and she screams out, ‘Who is that man behind you?’ And about that time, he pushed her down, and she come down on the marble.” Though Lynn’s been spooked by some of her family’s other supernatural encounters, she’s tickled at the thought of her Decca catalog being guarded by an actual Civil War veteran. ”She shouldn’t have been messing with ’em!” she says, chuckling.

It’s comforting to suppose that Lynn’s legacy is being looked after by forces beyond the grave. But country music’s all-time leading lady has reached a career juncture where it can’t hurt to get an assist from someone of, well, a younger generation. Somebody who only seems like an old soul.

Enter the Man in Black…and White and Red. Last year, White Stripes frontman Jack White flew from Detroit to knock out Lynn’s first new major-label solo album since the late 1980s, when, mired in contemporary Nashville production and losing her chart luster, she parted ways with MCA. The new disc, Van Lear Rose (due out April 27), marks her proud return to the Universal family — this time on the rock-and rap-oriented Interscope label. The White-produced CD isn’t just some musical May/December stunt: It’s an instant country-rock classic that, with its intergenerational appeal and strong Grammy and critics’ poll prospects, may be the album of a damn remarkable lifetime.

She’s thrilled about his career prospects, mind you. ”I see little old Jack becoming one of the greatest producers there is,” promises Lynn, 69, of her 28-year-old partner, who also plays guitar and keyboards on the album. ”And I think if Owen [Bradley, her producer in the ’60s and ’70s] was alive, he’d say the same thing. For a kid his age, he’s an old man. I really believe some people are born older.”