June 17, 2008
“I’m a combination of Linda Ronstadt, Loretta Lynn and Ralph Stanley.” – Patty Loveless, 1989
Patty Loveless may be the last of the great mountain singers who will ever find mainstream country success, but there has always been a country-rock undercurrent to her material. Beloved by fans of pure country music, her work is deeply rooted in the mountain sounds of her native Kentucky, but her years singing rock music carried over into the studio, making her something of a progressive traditionalist.
She was raised in Belcher Holler, a small Kentucky town where her father was a coal miner. He was struck by black lung disease, and the family moved to Louisville seeking medical care. Her older siblings Dotty and Roger performed in a country act they dubbed The Swingin’ Rameys, and when Dotty quit the band to get married, Roger coaxed Patty into taking her place. After earning $5 for her first performance, and loving the applause, she continued performing with her brother.
Roger’s love for country music led him to Nashville, where he became a producer for The Porter Wagoner Show. He cajoled Wagoner into listening to his sister Patty sing, and the high school girl sang her composition “Sounds of Loneliness” for the superstar. Wagoner was blown away, and vowed to help her break into the industry. He encouraged her to go back and finish school, but took her out with him on the road on weekends.
She was able to perform on a Grand Ole Opry package show when Jean Shepard had to cancel. Doyle Wilburn of the Wilburn Brothers caught the performance, and he invited her to join their touring band. After she graduated high school, she toured with the Wilburn Brothers as the female singer in their band. When she fell in love with their new drummer Terry Lovelace, however, Wilburn told her to end the romance. She quit the band instead, and Terry and Patty moved to North Carolina.
Patty was reluctant to take Lovelace as her stage name due to the high-profile adult film star Linda Lovelace, so she changed it to Loveless. She spent the late seventies and early eighties playing local clubs and bars in North Carolina. She felt disconnected to country music as a whole, but she found great inspiration from the work of country-rock queen Linda Ronstadt, who was her primary musical influence during this period. But the new traditionalist sounds of Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris brought her back to country, and in 1985 she contacted her brother Roger, who recorded a demo with her that he shopped around in Nashville.
He pushed for MCA Nashville to sign his sister, and A&R head Tony Brown loved her demo. Label president Jimmy Bowen was less than impressed. Bowen recounted in his autobiography that Brown burst into his office and said, “Bowen, she’s a monster, she’s gonna sell platinum.” He responded, “Bull****. She isn’t either,” but let Brown sign her anyway.
Her first album Patty Loveless earned her a small presence on country radio, but her second album, If My Heart Had Windows, provided her with her first hits. The title cut, a cover of a George Jones classic, went top ten, and “A Little Bit in Love,” a Steve Earle tune, went all the way to No. 2. But her big breakthrough was her third album, Honky Tonk Angel. The album spawned five top ten hits, including the #1 smash singles “Timber I’m Falling in Love” and “Chains.” It eventually sold platinum, and her smart choices of material from off-beat writers like Kostas and alt-country artists like Lone Justice (“Don’t Toss Us Away”).
Loveless was emboldened by her success, and followed up with the ambitious On Down the Line, another album that eventually went gold. Here, Loveless culled on rising singer-songwriters like Matraca Berg (“I’m That Kind of Girl”) and Lucinda Williams (“The Night’s Too Long.”) Her fifth album for MCA, Up Against My Heart, produced a big hit in “Hurt Me Bad (In a Real Good Way),” but Loveless was soon sidelined by vocal surgery. She was also concerned that MCA’s attention was too focused on platinum-selling Reba McEntire, Wynonna and Trisha Yearwood to give her the promotional push needed, so she switched to Epic Records, becoming their flagship female artist in 1992.
Loveless had married Emory Gordy Jr. three years earlier, and he would be her primary producer from that point on. Her first release for the label, Only What I Feel, put her back on the charts with the #1 smash “Blame it On Your Heart,” but it also established her as an album artist for the first time. Gordy emphasized her traditional roots more on record than anything that she’d done for MCA, and her powerful ballad “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye” became her first truly meaningful hit, far deeper than the typical radio filler.
“Goodbye” pushed the album to platinum, and Loveless followed with the critically acclaimed When Fallen Angels Fly. It was her most traditional album to date, but it also pushed the boundaries of mainstream country music, with a title cut penned by Billy Joe Shaver and melancholy laments like “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” and “Here I Am,” both of which became major hits. When Alison Krauss’ album was disqualified from the 1995 CMA Album of the Year race, Loveless’ set was a last-minute replacement on the ballot, as it was the sixth-highest vote-getter in the previous round of voting. Shockingly, the album was the well-deserved winner that fall, and Loveless became only the second woman to win that trophy in the 28-year history of the CMA Awards.
As Angels became her third platinum album, Loveless returned with the grittier The Trouble With the Truth. This album further elevated Loveless’ credibility and commercial clout, featuring a pair of #1 singles in “You Can Feel Bad” and “Lonely Too Long.” During the album’s run, Loveless won three Female Vocalist trophies, two from the ACM and one from the CMA.
Loveless partnered up with George Jones on the lead single from her next set, the gold-selling Long Stretch of Lonesome, and they won the CMA for Vocal Event for the track, “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me.” Her first Epic hit set, Ciassics, featured a duet with Vince Gill, “My Kind of Woman/My Kind of Man”, that again won Loveless the Vocal Event trophy. She also earned a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Collaboration, this time for her contributions to the multi-artist single “Same Old Train.”
Loveless had moderate success with her next set, Strong Heart, which featured the hits “That’s the Kind of Mood I’m In” and “The Last Thing on My Mind.” She was feeling artistically restless, and felt the need to revisit the mountain music of her childhood. The label gave her the green light to explore those sounds on record, and the result was Mountain Soul, which is widely regarded as her masterpiece. The set featured both traditional and new material, and one of the highlights was “Sounds of Loneliness”, the song she had sung for Porter Wagoner three decades earlier.
Her rootsy sound continued with a Christmas album Bluegrass and White Snow, and on her next studio set On Your Way Home, which featured a twanged-up remake of the Rodney Crowell hit “Lovin’ All Night.” The title track, co-written by Matraca Berg, earned Loveless a Grammy nomination. By this time, Loveless was an icon for fans of traditional country music, and was determined to incorporate the mountain sound into her projects. Her swan song for Epic, the stunning 2005 album Dreamin’ My Dreams, had Loveless penning another mountain song, the good-natured romp “Big Chance”, while she kept her alt-country creds duetting with Dwight Yoakam (“Never-Ending Song of Love”) and covering Buddy & Julie Miller (“Keep Your Distance.”)
Since leaving Epic in 2006, Loveless has been fairly quiet on the musical front, though she has recorded with Bob Seger, George Strait and Kathy Mattea. She still appears at the Grand Ole Opry, where she’s been a member for twenty years, and is making select appearances on the road this year. While it remains an open question when she’ll return to the studio, there is no doubt that her return will be welcome by fans of traditional country music, as Loveless is one of the few acts in the genre’s history who not only keeps its flame burning, but makes it shine brighter.
- “Don’t Toss Us Away”, 1989
- “Timber, I’m Falling in Love”, 1989
- “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye”, 1994
- “Here I Am”, 1994
- “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”, 1995
- “Lonely Too Long”, 1996
- “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”, 1997
- “On Your Way Home”, 2003
- Honky Tonk Angel, 1988
- When Fallen Angels Fly, 1994
- The Trouble With the Truth, 1996
- Long Stretch of Lonesome, 1997
- Mountain Soul, 2001
- Dreamin’ My Dreams, 2005
- ACM Top Female Vocalist, 1996 & 1997
- ACM Video (“Two Sparrows in a Hurricane”), 1993
- CMA Vocal Event (“I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair”), 1993
- CMA Album (When Fallen Angels Fly), 1995
- CMA Female Vocalist, 1996
- CMA Vocal Event (“You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”), 1998
- CMA Vocal Event (“My Kind of Woman/My Kind of Man”), 1999
- Grammy: Best Country Collaboration with Vocals (“Same Old Train”), 1999