With Mountain Soul, Patty Loveless returned to her roots and re-energized a career that positioned her as an ambassador for both the historical lessons and the promising future that country music can provide when approached correctly. Born out of a desire to reconnect with the music of her childhood, this album is the pinnacle of a career that is matched by few of her peers. With every lonesome note, Loveless grows closer to the sounds and stories that marked her younger days as a coal miner’s daughter in East Kentucky.
The album itself is an examination of this particular region, and, assisted by her brilliant husband-producer Emory Gordy, Jr., Loveless tells a story that is often untold about the people and the places that were a significant influence in her life. The simple, acoustic production provides the perfect framework for the smart song choices and lovely harmony voices that support Loveless in her quest to tell the word of bluegrass and all its wonders. The stellar picking and playing from some of Nashville’s finest (no drums or overdubs here) is some of the sweetest (and often, saddest) fiddle, Dobro and banjo music you may ever hear on record.
Quite clearly, Loveless relishes blending bluegrass with more contemporary styles and themes, and her chilling alto is altogether tragic when married to some of the most tear-jerking ballads known to man. The defining moment of Mountain Soul is the heart-wrenching ballad “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” the story of a man’s struggle to support his family through his work in the Kentucky coal mines. With no hope in sight, he continues his life’s work even though the ending is often final and fatal. The aching vocal is deep, dark, but always sympathetic as it tells a story that ultimately hits close to home for Loveless, whose own father died from black lung disease in the late 1970s.
The final song is similar in its desolation. It was penned by Patty at the age of 14, but “Sounds of Loneliness” is a mature, yet miserable admission of heartache and pain. The emptiness echoes in Loveless’ voice, just as in “Soul of Constant Sorrow,” a more faithful cover of the traditional song later covered for the O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. And distress knows no bound on “Sorrowful Angels,” a depths-of-despair ballad about the angels weeping as they keep watch over a woman burned by unrequited love.
The duets with Travis Tritt and Jon Randall (“Out of Control Raging Fire” and “Someone I Used to Know,” respectively), are raw and rootsy, channeling the depth of the emotions of which they speak. Loveless realistically portrays an isolated woman who struggles to find an escape from her deep-rooted affections.
But the mood is not always downbeat in the world of bluegrass. Loveless’ duet and # 1 bluegrass hit with legend Ralph Stanley, the toe-tapping “Pretty Polly” proved that. She uses that template as inspiration for the more spirited numbers on Mountain Soul. The downright-religious “Rise Up Lazarus” and “Daniel Prayed” (the story of Daniel and the lion’s den, told with harmony help from Ricky Skaggs) are full of joy and jubilance. “Pretty Little Miss,” a rousing number that shines with the sheer enjoyment of Loveless and her first-rate pickers and harmony singers, is pure bluegrass at its best. It’s a simmering song about a little girl dying to leave home with a new love, and the twist at the end is truly amusing. The exuberance on the project’s most potent up-tempo songs is infectious.
The album jacket contains rarely seen photographs of Loveless’s father and photos of her hometown, Pikeville, Kentucky, and it exhibits how important Mountain Soul is in her career, as she connects to this down-home material like none she has recorded yet. This labor of love benefits from the tender care that Loveless gives to each and every note. A true master class of country music.