Certain Songs #970: Loretta Lynn (feat. Jack White) – “Portland, Oregon”

Album: Van Lear Rose
Year: 2004

I’ll admit it: in 2004, when Van Lear Rose came out, I only had a vague knowledge of Loretta Lynn’s music. I mean, obviously, I knew that she’d been a Country superstar in the 1970s, and that Sissy Spacek had won the Oscar for Best Actress playing her in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

On the other hand, I completely knew who Jack White was, as The White Stripes were probably at the peak of both their popularity and their powers, and I was interested in Van Lear Rose because it was his first(?) extracirrcular project outside of the peculiar constraints he’d previously set on the music made.

And, gentle reader, I suspect I wasn’t alone. And I also suspect that Jack White knew that, and Van Lear Rose was engineered to bring people like me into their first extended contact with Loretta Lynn and her still-clear-as-a-brook voice.

And it worked, in spades, no more so than on the lead single, the time “Portland, Oregon,” one of those Loretta Lynn-penned songs that would have been equally as great if she’s written it 35 years prior as a potential crossover duet with, say, Gram Parsons.

White, of course, had always been about mining the past — the only thing that made White Stripes seem so contemporary in the early 2000s was the two-person lineup and the contrast between Jack’s virtuosity and Meg White’s primitiveness — but “Portland, Oregon” took it to a whole new level. It literally sounded like a great lost crossover track from 1969.

With a guitar trilling in one speaker, the drums playing a modified samba while a pedal steel guitar cried in another, the opening of “Portland, Oregon” was almost a feint, and came to a dead stop, only to play a resigned riff that was soon overcome by a dancing slide guitar, which then came crashing to a halt, the more’s the better for Loretta to bowl you over with the opening couplet:

Well, Portland Oregon and sloe gin fizz
If that ain’t love, then tell me what is, uh huh, uh huh
Well I lost my heart, it didn’t take no time
But that ain’t all, I lost my mind in Oregon

That, right there, is how you start a song about a drunken affair or at least a drunken hookup, and both Jack and Loretta make the most of it, trading off verses and couplets until the, er, climax, when — rather than regretting the night before, they decide to replicate it.

Well, sloe gin fizz works mighty fast
When you drink it by the pitcher and not by the glass, uh huh, uh huh
Hey bartender, before you close
Pour us one more drink and a pitcher to go

And as they both emphasize they want that pitcher to go, Jack White’s slide guitar ramps up over the rolling pounding drums and Loretta lets out what is almost a yodel of delight on the last “goooooooo” and all you can do is be happy for these crazy, drunken kids.

It’s a brilliant song, and it won the Grammy for Best Country Collaboration With Vocals — just like it wouldn’t have in 1969 — and helped power Van Lear Rose to number one on the Country charts and number 20 on the overall Billboard charts.

“Portland, Oregon”

“Portland, Oregon” performed live on the Late Show With David Letterman, 2004

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