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Music Review: Loretta Lynn – Number 1’s

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Loretta Lynn may not quite get the same level of hipster cool, but really, she’s the female version of Johnny Cash – a smart, witty and irreverent outlaw working against the clichés of country music to craft timeless Americana with a sassy bite.

The new Loretta Lynn Number 1’s CD collects 17 of Lynn’s biggest chart-topping hits, during a red-hot streak in the 1970s. Lynn ruled the decade – all but one of the tracks here date from 1968 to 1978 – with her liberated yet folksy style that appealed to those on all sides of the divide. Without her, it’s hard to imagine the Dixie Chicks or Sheryl Crow. But few figures approach Lynn’s blend of vulnerability and guts.

The tone is set right from the first track on Number 1’s, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind),” a pissed-off housewife’s lament about her ne’er-do-well man. This is a frequent theme for Lynn, whose real-life marriage to Oliver Lynn had many bumpy moments. “Just stay out there on the town and see what you can find / Cause if you want that kind of love well you don’t need none of mine,” she sings. But on “Fist City,” Lynn promises to defend her man’s honor: “You better detour around my town / ‘Cause I’ll grab you by the hair a the head.”

Lynn didn’t write all her hits, but when she did she brought a keen eye for detail and a sentimental, but not rose-colored, viewpoint to her hard-knocks upbringing. Like Cash, she was a genius at making the smaller moments soar. The classic track, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” has a you-are-there immediacy that’s right up there with the best of Johnny Cash: “Mama scrubbed our clothes on a washboard every day / I’ve seen her fingers bleed.”

The Shel Silverstein-penned hit “One’s On The Way” showcases the funny side of Lynn. It’s a tune that looks at the women’s lib movement with an eye straight from the country – “The pill may change the world tomorrow, but meanwhile, today / Here in Topeka, the flies are a buzzin’.” Lynn’s a women’s pioneer, but at the same time she’s never thrown in with the flavor of the month, preferring to concentrate her songs on real folks, real stories.

At 73, she’s still out there – her 2004 CD Van Lear Rose, a collaboration with Jack White of the White Stripes, was a bawdy, down-home delight. Number 1’s is a fine introduction to Lynn’s extraordinary legacy, which in my mind doesn’t quite get the mainstream cred she deserves. The songs here aren’t all gems – the six duets with frequent singing partner Conway Twitty tend to be a little less fiery than Lynn all by herself, a bit soft around the edges – but pretty much everything on here is worth a listen.

There are many Lynn compilations out there, and you could argue the merits of each. More dedicated Lynn fans might prefer larger albums, or ones that cover more than just 10 years of her career. But this one is another fitting tribute to one of the pioneers of women in country music. The budget-priced series, part of a sweeping wave of new “Number 1’s” discs from Universal Music Enterprises, also boasts “eco-friendly” packaging – both the digipak and the tray the CD rests in are made of biodegradable material rather than plastic.

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