Jack White has become synonymous with the new era of Nashville. Ever since White brought his Detroit- founded label, Third Man Records, to Nashville in 2009, the city has become known for its bachelor and bachelorette parties, rapid job growth, and adopted love for hockey.
Nashville’s 21st century evolution has not been divorced from the city’s status as the global epicenter of country music. A quick walk down Broadway on a Saturday night makes it clear that the city is indebted to the music that the honky tonk bands are playing up and down the strip. Loretta Lynn is one of the stars who is essential to the country story of Nashville. She is the most decorated woman in country music, and her music will continue to endure for generations to come.
On their own, White and Lynn seem to symbolize two sides of Nashville’s history. If Lynn epitomizes the music and culture that Nashville built across the country, then White is the face of the city’s new phase as a beacon of 21st century growth. The two are far from separate, with Van Lear Rose, one of Lynn’s most celebrated records, serving as the foundation for White’s transition from a Detroit son to a Nashville transplant that began 15 years ago.
The White Stripes stood at the center of Detroit Rock Renaissance 20 years ago. The band’s sound sat at the intersection of Detroit’s complex history and its musical prowess. The output itself served as the peak of Jack White’s skill and influence as a musician. White’s current phase as a musician and individual centers on his new home of Nashville, and he laid down the roots for that move in the middle of his personal renaissance. Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose is a pristine moment where one artist in her golden years and another at his creative peaked weaved their talents together in a way that truly embodies Nashville’s past and present.
Tennessee in Detroit
Jack White was raised as a child of Detroit but was never a stranger to Tennessee. The garage rock scene that he helped spearhead in the late ’90s was as indebted to the Blues of the Delta and Detroit as it was to Wayne Kramer’s MC5 and The Stooges. The early records from The White Stripes featured raucous covers of blues classics, and the success of their punchy sound, fierce compositions, and energetic live shows drove Jack to start a label, Third Man Records, in the city in 2001.
Despite these explicit connections to Memphis, White’s understanding for Nashville came through in his appreciation for Lynn. He had covered Lynn’s songs on the road with The White Stripes, and considered her “one of the greatest female singer/songwriters of the 20th century”. His ultimate tribute came in 2001, when he dedicated the band’s breakout record, White Blood Cells to her.
White Blood Cells became the foundation of the band’s takeover of the rock world. The White Stripes traveled across the pond to London to record its follow-up in 2002. What resulted was 2003’s Elephant, an even bigger moment of commercial and critical acclaim for the band that transcended what was considered success within the garage rock scene.
We’re Going to Be Friends
As Jack and Meg conquered the world of rock, Loretta Lynn owned Nashville as well as anyone could have at the point. The Country Hall of Fame inductee was 40 years and 41 albums into her career and had just released her second New York Times best-selling autobiography. She didn’t have much to prove at that point, and there was very little she could do that could completely erase her legacy as a legend of country. That position didn’t stop her from conquering another challenge: writing an album with her own words from start to finish.
Her four decades of output was driven by a mix of songwriters guiding her voice and vision. She wrote plenty of her own songs throughout her career, and was inducted to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1983, but Van Lear Rose was her attempt to fully pen a record of her own.
It took a meeting in Manhattan for Jack to join the journey. Lynn’s daughter, Patsy, told her mother that White had dedicated White Blood Cells to her. The two then linked up, and Lynn told White that she was working on a new record of songs written by her, and told her that he had to be part of it in whatever way possible.
“I’d play tambourine on this record, if that’s it,” White said to CMT in 2004. “I don’t care. I just want to be in the same room with her and to be able to work on this.”
Bringing Detroit to Johnson County
The duo sat well in their own approaches, giving each other the chance to let their wings fly. The record is a dive into Lynn’s life. She opens the record’s title track by softly recounting her “fondest memories” of her father telling stories of Lynn’s mother. Her storytelling is simple, elevating the power of the love story she tells, and the beauty she sets the scene of the Johnson County community where Lynn’s family came together.
The simple open serves as a thesis for the whole record, an opportunity for Lynn to share some of her warmest thoughts and memories with her listeners, and White had the task of bringing those stories to life. She pairs these tracks with others about different characters, faith, and the values that made her, never straying too far from the home she stands in front of on the album’s cover.
Lynn’s ability to tell versatile stories in a powerful, straightforward way shines throughout the album. Personal tales like the title track, “Family Tree,” and “Story of My Life” do not shy away from Lynn’s personal candor, while “High on a Mountain Top” or “God Makes No Mistakes” exhibit the values that raised her. She even shows off her ability to speak from the heart of characters of different bends, like “Women’s Prison” and its death row musings. “Little Red Shoes” takes storytelling quite literally, with a waving drum pattern and guitar pedals vamps serving as the backdrop for a stream of consciousness monologue by Lynn about the lengths her parents were willing to fight for her in Johnson County.
White’s influence on the record is clear in visible and invisible ways. “Have Mercy” kicks off with a ripping guitar intro that isn’t hard to trace back to White’s garage roots. The heavy march of drums and guitar add tension to Lynn’s pleas for mercy, before the pieces wipe away in a jazzy breakdown as the guitars wilt and drums wipe around in a fine rockabilly manner. All of this pressure then explodes into an electric catharsis that wouldn’t feel too far off on White Blood Cells, sitting neatly at the junction of loud n’ proud country and good ‘ol Detroit rock.
White was one of four members of Lynn’s backing band on the record, who she called the Do Whaters. In a truly Detroit contribution, none of the Do Whaters were traditional country players. Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence were immersed in the garage rock scene south of Toledo, becoming friends with White during the early days of Third Man Records. David Feeny was another Detroit player who had to take reigns on a Nashville delicacy: the pedal guitar.
Like the scene where the Do Whaters brushed up their chops, White and Lynn recorded the album quick and fast. It took 12 days to record Van Lear Rose, merging the prolific talent of Lynn’s pristine voice and refined talent with the raw skills that the Do Whaters built up in the Detroit scene.
“Portland, Oregon” is a duet between the two that serves as White’s most visible moment on record. Whispering guitars lead the track off like the slow flow a creek, before building into a wandering instrumental. The intro is as hazy as the boozy night in Oregon that Lynn and White trade garbs about.
Lynn’s warm, unmistakable voice fills in the thoughts of a woman who gave her heart to a man in the bars, while White’s authentic garage drawl fits perfectly as a yearning man picking up the tab and making his moves. The 44-year age difference between the two feels irrelevant in the scope of the reckless affair they describe on track. The equally ferocious performance from the Do Whaters shows how the band’s raucous experiences from Detroit can hold their own on a Nashville track.
The Assembly Line’s Son and Coal Miner’s Daughter
While the record is undeniably linked to Johnson County and Nashville, the core of White and Lynn’s partnership doesn’t sit too far from Detroit, either. Ben Blackwell, co-founder of Third Man Records, says that the The White Stripes and other bands from Detroit’s Rock Renaissance are indebted to a cross-pollination of music that dates back to the city’s heyday.
“What post-war America and the auto industry afforded to the residents of Detroit was a level of being able to explore your leisure that was probably not seen before or since,” Blackwell said on Striped: The Story of The White Stripes, a podcast about the band’s history produced by Third Man. “The worst part about Motown as a label, as a proper noun, is that it kind of ended up overshadowing all of the other equally as impressive and important African-American musical forms that were represented in the city.”
Blackwell says that bands like the MC5 and The Gories took inspiration from blues artists like John Lee Hooker and those signed to JVB Records. These bands directly inspired the scene that Jack White helped define with The White Stripes, and his music reflected the storytelling, grit, and raw energy of those diverse lineages of artists.
Lynn’s musings about her life growing up around the Van Lear coal mine are rooted in the plight and fight of the working American. Despite powering the country in substantially different ways, the way that Lynn pays tribute to the working families that built her is not too far from White’s roots in the diverse sounds of Detroit, built by the rise and fall of the auto industry.
The White Stripes may have found themselves living in superstardom after Elephant, but White’s work on Van Lear Rose illustrates his understanding of the sound that he brought to the world, as well as the scope of how those sounds could tell stories beyond the Cass Corridor.
Forging the Swan Song
Just like the diverse influences that drove Detroit’s rock renaissance, Van Lear Rose earned success among a range of fans. The album earned critical acclaim across the board, earning a 97 score on Metacritic, the second highest score of 2004. This acclaim came with true crossover appeal, simultaneously earning Grammy nominations in five different country categories, including a win for Best Country Album and Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, along with a 9.3 rating from Pitchfork.
Lynn may have earned some true indie/alternative credibility with Van Lear Rose, but that acclaim was simply icing on the cake for her. She took the rest of the 2000s off after the record, with its follow up, Full Circle, coming out in 2016. She has faced some health setbacks in recent years, including a stroke in 2017 and a broken hip in 2018, but has recovered from both.
White did not leave Lynn’s sphere after their time spent recording together. They have found ways into each other’s lives since the record, with Lynn opening for White in 2015, and the two performing “Portland, Oregon” together as part of his main set. Lynn would be the first to acknowledge that relationship formed an integral part of her story as a Nashville legend.
White became an essential part of Loretta Lynn’s already-legendary story, even making an appearance at Lynn’s 87th birthday celebration earlier this year, performing “Have Mercy” with the Do Whaters.
After Van Lear Rose
Beyond launching the swan song of Lynn’s career, Van Lear Rose was the foundation of Jack White’s next phase as a musician in Nashville. Two of the Do Whaters, Lawrence and Keeler, joined White and his old friend Brendan Benson to form The Racounteurs, who recorded their debut record, Broken Boy Soldiers, in Detroit a year after Van Lear Rose.
All of White’s records after that first Racounteurs record have been recorded in Nashville. Following Icky Thump, the final record from The White Stripes, Lawrence joined White on another project, The Dead Weather, who have recorded in Nashville since 2009 — the same year that Third Man Records official set up shop in the city. Since The White Stripes officially disbanded in 2012, White has recorded and released three solo records in the home of Lynn.
White’s eclectic mix of blues, rock, psychedelia, and country sounds do not directly mimic the sounds that Lynn created in Nashville, which truly reflects the city’s evolving status beyond the realm of country music. The city is one of the top-five fastest growing metro areas in the U.S., a fact that has driven investment across the city, as well as commitments from companies like Amazon to guide the city’s future.
To that same end, Jack’s departure from Detroit mirrored the broader decline that the city experienced towards the end of the 2000s. Detroit’s 20th century decline was a slow burn, and impact of the Great Recession and crisis within the auto industry was the ultimate knife. A city built on the back of a flailing industry lost 25 percent of its population between the 2000 and 2010 census, and declared the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history in 2013.
White and the New Motor City
In 2015, over a decade since the beginning of Jack’s new life in Nashville, Third Man opened a physical shop at the intersection of Canfield and Cass, blocks down from the spots where The White Stripes and other bands first made their mark on Detroit’s rock scene.
His return came the middle of a curious time for the city that built him, with the resurgence of some parts of the city overlapping with the continued struggle of others, as well as the potential trivialization of those who endured through the city’s darkest times.
The city is out of bankruptcy, and investments from Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert have led to $5.6 billion of development and the revitalization of around 100 buildings, especially around downtown. This growth is not widespread though, with 35 percent of the city’s population still in poverty, fed by the scars of segregation in the city that are far from healed.
The jury is still out on whether this growth is truly gentrification or wholly problematic, and it is hard to truly understand White’s motivations in leaving this footprint on Detroit. On the one hand, his label is giving back to the neighborhoods that he made into his own during the city’s darkest time. White was a major presence on the Cass Corridor rock scene when it was a center for crime in the city, and the music of The White Stripes kept the city on the map when it seemed like everyone else had forgotten.
On the other hand, his investment comes amidst a time of rapid growth in those neighborhoods — growth that has not necessarily spread evenly across the city. To that that front, Third Man Records even partnered with Shinola, a watch brand whose embrace of Detroit sits somewhere between investment and carpetbagging, to open their Detroit location, further mirroring the idealistic timing of the label’s return to the city White left years before.
Neither White nor Lynn could have predicted the circumstances of their cities when they joined forces to create Van Lear Rose. The music that Lynn wrote creatively and symbolically bridged the gap between the country scene that Lynn created and the one that White inhabited. White capitalized on this opening to bring his Detroit sensibilities to a new place, one that has experienced a substantial boon amidst struggles in the place he left.
Ultimately, the foundation of Jack’s new life as a musician served as a life-affirming touchstone of Lynn’s entire career. White helped Lynn voice her stories as a daughter of the Van Lear mine, giving us essential tales of family and hard work that are as true to Johnson County as they are to the Cass Corridor.