Thankfully for country music disciples, Patty Loveless blends classic and contemporary country music seamlessly, a practice that is often used, but rarely mastered. On Sleepless Nights, she delivers a record that engages the listeners and pays tribute to the old life-and-love songs of yesterday. With husband and producer Emory Gordy, Jr. and the assistance of a number of Nashville’s first-rate musicians (among them, Nashville Sound pioneers Harold Bradley and Pig Robbins), Loveless honors these memories of misery with style and class.
Sleepless Nights is an album about paying for sins, praying for strength and staying faithful to old memories and new loves. Cheating is the choice subject for “Don’t Let Me Cross Over,” drinking is the word of the day on “There Stands the Glass” and sadness is the stuff of “Color of the Blues.” And through the course of fourteen classic cuts, Loveless demonstrates that certain wounds are lingering, lasting and sometimes, permanent.
The album itself is a lesson in loneliness. It’s a testament to the art form of country music, warts and all. It shows how the genre, as with almost any style of music from blues to gospel to jazz, is born out of pain. It’s an emotion that is part of the deep roots of music, and this pain takes on many names when directed by the voice of one of country music’s finest artists ever. As a whole, Sleepless Nights makes a fascinating case study in sadness.
A shift in how country music is approached has caused the often harsh realities of heartache and hurt to be glossed over in favor of uplifting tunes that encourage determination and denial rather than facing these fears and failings. But throughout her career, Loveless has found true connection to material that spells out such sorrowful times. While a number of country music’s classic artists have demonstrated the difficulties of hard living in their songs, it is hard loving that has caused the characters in these songs to reach the brink. That consuming, fiery feeling which is unyielding and often unreturned. And Loveless’ plaintive voice shows full awareness that love is most painful when it cannot be given equally by those that trade in it, and the sad songs here prove it.
And of course, it’s the sad songs to which she has always seemed most perfectly suited. The ballads that may be unfamiliar to many listeners are the real keepers here. Her yearning vocals on “The Pain of Loving You” (a hidden gem from Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner) gains new meaning and measure through the longing in the Loveless voice. On the most haunting track, the title cut recorded previously by the Everly Brothers and Emmylou Harris, Loveless sings of a woman in dire need of her old love. From the depths of despair, she still manages to keep faith that her broken heart will be repaired. As she wails and wonders openly to her former flame “Why did you go?” with the piercing pain in her voice, she’s complemented by a beautiful harmony vocal from Vince Gill. The Davis sisters’ “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” is also fiercely sung (and assisted by a wonderfully melodic steel guitar), yet recognizes that the sting is a powerful thing and will have to be endured.
Throughout the album, even on the sad songs, Loveless and her supporting cast shine with enjoyment and energy. Even though Sleepless Nights treads on serious themes, the musical arrangements are not always so solemn. At times it’s the ultimate in what one could call “beautiful pain.” On the first single, “Why, Baby, Why,” a reworking of the 1955 George Jones classic, Loveless leans into the lyric with the mountainous twang that has become her trademark, and she dances the line between desperate and defiant with great ease. On this track, and other timeless tunes such as “Please Help Me, I’m Falling” and “Crazy Arms,” she fully acknowledges the marvelous delights of deep-rooted affection that have created these painful situations. The musicians assist her with poignant, yet pleasurable settings. Loveless proves that with the nuance in her voice and true insight into what makes these relationships rewarding, regardless of the pain involved. She excels at exploring the complexity in human relationships and how these ties that bind are rarely crystal clear.
On any covers collection, the natural inclination is to compare the songs with the original versions, but Loveless’ musical identity and distinctive vocal talent make the difference on Sleepless Nights. She even tackles “(S)he Thinks I Still Care”, a George Jones staple and a neat shuffle that features a swaying piano on the playing-pretend ballad. And although Webb Pierce’s version of “There Stands the Glass” is inimitable, Loveless (with a little fiddle help at just the right times) is able to make the song her own through her spirited and sprightly vocal. The subtlety and sass on display is considerable and carefully rendered. But examining this album from a song-by-song perspective would leave the message ever-elusive. Sleepless Nights, as with all great country albums, is meant to be enjoyed as a whole. And it’s best viewed as an example of the heart’s push-and-pull, and Loveless’ voice echoes with an understanding that life is fully lived because of these experiences, not in spite of them.
In previewing the album, Loveless said, “It’s a little bit of a history lesson, but I think once you hear the songs, the stories … you’re going to be drawn to it”. Although those involved with Sleepless Nights could never truly capture the sound of these old recordings (technology and time have made that impossible), they are able to capture their spirit. Loveless conjures up memories of an older era of country music, and her fresh twist on these classics feels natural, sounding like a channel to the past and a legend in the present.