After a three year absence from the country music scene, a revived Patty Loveless has arrived with a brand new album featuring her versions of country classics called Sleepless Nights. An appropriate title, considering Loveless has endured the death of her mother, mother-in-law and the illness of her brother during that stretch of inactivity.
But these hard times have moved Loveless to give some of the most heart-rending performances of her career, and in a phone interview from her home in Cartersville, Georgia, she tells Country Universe about her doubts of returning to the music business, her dreams for the next phase of her career and her desire to spread the gospel of traditional country music.
Since 2005’s Dreaming My Dreams, you’ve kept a rather low profile except for a few guest appearances. Give us a glimpse of your life in the last three years and why this was the right time for an album of classics.
I was mostly trying to get used to being a resident of Georgia. Since I first came to Nashville when I was 14, we’d drive back and forth to Nashville all the time for a few years. And of course, when I was 19, I moved to North Carolina. And then I came back to do a country record, that was in ’85. And now it’s been over twenty years. So I’ve been driving a lot. And I like to drive. I do. But now I’m settled in Georgia, and I was just getting used to being in Georgia and living there. Plus, with everything with my family, I believed it was time for a break. It was necessary to take a sabbatical, but I’m happy to be back in front of the fans, and I hope this album really influences people.
Of course, during the time I was also singing on other artist’s records. I did the Bob Seger record, and we sang “The Answer’s in the Question.” I really enjoyed it. And of course, I believe it was last December we cut the George Strait one, “House of Cash,” and I sang on the new Kathy Mattea album…
And with Vince Gill on These Days.
Yes. I loved going in the studio with him.
This new album, Sleepless Nights, is drinking and cheating, loss and loneliness—is part of you simply drawn to these deep songs? And how do they resonate with you differently now?
I wear my feelings on my sleeve. I put a lot of pain into my songs. Music is my healing.
In the last couple years, I didn’t have the energy or the heart (to record). I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to make another record. I knew I would always somehow continue to sing in some way, but I didn’t know when. I just needed time. After everything that happened with my mother, and my mother-in-law’s passing as well, I felt like I was burned out. Of course, I was there for the last week of my mother’s life, and she was surrounded by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and of course her children.
Fortunate considering you were on the road so often. A blessing.
Yes, a real blessing. I was still trying to help, you know, women tend to be the caregivers. I had brothers who were having a hard time of it. I have two sisters as well, and for some reason we held strong. And Roger, who was really the one who encouraged and pushed me into the country music limelight, having a stroke, it was tough. I was afraid that something would go wrong due to all the stress.
Also, your career was in a holding pattern.
I felt like my heart had broken. The problems with the recall on the record didn’t help. And then of course, I parted ways with Sony Epic, so I just needed time to heal. (Editor’s note: A number of copies of Loveless’ last Epic release Dreamin’ My Dreams, released in 2005, were created with anti-theft software installed that prevented consumers from downloading the album to their personal playing devices.)
You must have been frustrated that you were trying to stay relevant in your career by allowing for this technology only for it to fail, at least in your case.
Yes, it was just one last thing that caused me to question everything. It was disappointing.
I imagine the songs take on new meaning and measure with these true-to-life, troubling experiences.
Well, I have to share this with you. When I was driving back to Georgia the other day, I was listening to “How Can I Help You to Say Goodbye.” It was actually a live version from a while ago, and I had tear in my eyes. The emotions felt like running rapids. We start rehearsal next week, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get through it. I’ve told the band it’s going to be hard. Now I’ve lived through that song, after the experience with my mother, and I connect to it. All of it. And it’s been years since we’ve done that song on tour, so I’m just not sure. I just want the fans to know that if I start to choke up during the song, that it’s because of those emotions.
That song not only connects to you because you’ve lived it out, but to the audience as well.
Yes. That’s the point of my music. I feel that I want to be able to deliver a song that’s healing. I remember one show, I believe it was in Ohio, back in 1996, and my sister Dottie had just undergone surgery (Dottie would pass away in the fall of 1996.) I was singing the verse, and I just started crying. I want to give people hope, even through the sadness. The songs are supposed to help people and heal. And if I were to stand on stage and break down…
The song wouldn’t serve its purpose.
Exactly. And that’s why I’m making this record. After those hard times, I felt inspired by being at the Opry and being with Porter and Dolly, and obviously it was hard with Porter’s passing, but it made me want to get back to the music. And listening to the old records with Emory (Gordy, Jr., Loveless’ producer and husband) and feeling that desire again. I felt like I wanted to carry on the tradition of the music.
What strikes me about the album is that it appeals to both males and females, and you’ve made a career out of transcending these gender lines.
Well, a lot of these songs were first sung by male artists. And that’s what a lot of the songs were about back then. (laughs) Lyrically, I feel that they are timeless. People can still relate to them today. And I think people will still be going through these same emotions, 20, no, even 50 years from now. I don’t think that’s ever going to change.
There’s one song on there by a female, the Davis sisters’ song, “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” but I just found out that Bob Dylan had actually recorded that on his Self Portrait album.
It shows how these songs can apply to anyone.
Yes, they sure do.
One of those male artists you mentioned, George Jones once noted that you were his favorite female singer of the time, and of course, you’ve recorded together on “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”. But on this album, we find a full four tracks that have a Jones connection. Tell me about his role in influencing your life, from your childhood and throughout your career.
George Jones was a big, huge name in our household. George Jones—he is considered country, but in every genre he is known. Everybody knows George Jones. But George has such a unique voice. And he made such timeless songs, like “Color of the Blues,” just real hard-core country stuff.
For me, I always tried to copy his phrasing. He has great phrasing, and I wanted to be a female George Jones. Of course, I sang “If My Heart Had Windows,” which was my first real hit, and he had sung it earlier, in 1967. You know, a few weeks ago Emory was playing some records for me, and he played a song and asked who I thought was singing. Well, of course, I thought it was George, but it was really Roy Acuff. I’ve always wondered, and maybe I should ask him sometime, if he borrowed some of that style of singing.
I can’t believe it would be stretching the truth too much to say he was influenced by Roy.
No. I was just so surprised by that.
Now, you’ve been given this opportunity to share your influences with the help of a new partner. With your new record label (Saguaro Road Records), are you experiencing a different level of freedom as an independent-label artist? What are the benefits of this partnership?
I didn’t feel like I was going to get pressured into anything. I gave them an idea for the record, and I’d thought about doing it just for the sake of doing it, just for friends and family, that kind of thing. But they supported it from the beginning, and I appreciate it.
You’ve stayed true to the country music art form, but in the past you and Emory tend to blend a number of genres—bluegrass, rock, pop, the blues to form a different country sound. Is it simply an appreciation for these other genres that makes it all work?
A lot of people tend to think I did bluegrass, being from Kentucky, but I was raised on mostly country music. I was influenced by my brothers and sisters, and they all listened to the country music of the 1950s and 1960s.
And of course, you sang your share of rock music in the earlier part of your career.
Yes. I’ve done different styles and different sounds, but country music was what I grew up on. I enjoy doing something new, though. And I do love bluegrass.
That melding of musical styles seems to have formed into a distinctive Patty Loveless sound.
That’s always been my goal-to take those elements and make it my own. And I think Emory had plenty to do with it, too, even though he wouldn’t want me to say that!
Obviously, country radio has changed in the last 10-15 years, and you’ve enjoyed a number of successes in the format. To which artists of this new generation do you gravitate?
(pauses) I think Carrie Underwood has an amazing voice. She can do some hard-core country. I saw her at the Opry sing a real traditional country song, and I think that’s something she can do. She did a wonderful job.
And at some point in her career, you would expect her to make that move.
Yes. This is just me speaking, but I think the new artists might have a little bit of fear. In this day and time, a lot of artists, in the beginning of their careers, are afraid to do that traditional country. Because they’re trying to keep up with the Joneses I guess (laughs). It seems they want to stay popular and a lot of artists tend to be led in another direction and they’re told what to do. The artists are wanting to have that success and get played on the radio and sell records. And I don’t blame them. There is some great music out there. But I think within them there is the heart for traditional country. And I feel that we’re slowly shifting back to that music. Also, at the Opry last weekend I enjoyed the new female singer Crystal…
Yes. She’s got a great voice. Another one is Rebecca Lynn Howard. I just don’t believe she’s found her mate yet, and by that I mean, she hasn’t found the one song to make a big break, even though she had “Forgive” just a few years ago. But she has the talent.
One song is all it takes.
Yes, and she loves the good, traditional country music, too.
Back to Carrie Underwood, you’ve obviously gained the respect of the younger generation of artists, because she sent a personal message on her website that she’d be buying the record in the store even though she had the opportunity, of course, to receive an advance copy.
That’s really nice of her. She has a lot of talent. I love that experience, too. One thing I’ve always done is go out and buy my own record in the stores. Of course, I didn’t make it out on Tuesday with everything going on, but I always like to go buy the record and then maybe buy something else from some other artists I’m interested in.
Buying your own record—it makes the whole experience more real and brings it down to earth.
Yes, I always get really excited.
What’s the next step in your career? I know you have mentioned that you wanted to do an album of classic songs in contemporary setting.
If things go well with this record, I’d love to do a classic-sounding, real country record, like from the ’50s and ’60s, but with newly-written songs that are fresh but still have those themes that I can connect to.
And I know the songwriters, even with all the commercial considerations in this town, have that deep well of talent to write those songs. One of those writers you mentioned in your interview with Peter Cooper was Matraca Berg.
Yes, I just love her. And she was just inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
I believe she’d been nominated the last 3 or 4 years, so I’m sure she’s thrilled with the induction. And she’s made quite a mark on your career, with “I’m That Kind of Girl” and “On Your Way Home” for example. But she can write those heartache, hurting songs.
Yes, she is unbelievable. I’m really happy for her and for her success.
Is there anything else you’d like to achieve in your career?
I think that I would like to write a book on my life. That’s something I’ve thought about. Just tell the fans my story.
I’m sure a great deal of the audience would be interested.
I feel that I have a lot to tell. Yeah, I think I’d write a book. Something that could come out in hardback. (laughs)
That would be quite an accomplishment. With all the awards you’ve received, the Grammy, the ACMs, the CMAs, to then wind up on the New York Times bestseller list.
Yes, that would be something.
On that note, in a career of remarkable achievements, both critical acclaim and sales success, is there any one highlight that stands out?
Oh, that’s tough. I would have to say winning Female Vocalist of the Year at the CMAs (in 1996). It’d been ten years being in the business, and I’d been nominated a few times in the past, and I was really excited to win that one. And winning Album of the Year (in 1995, for When Fallen Angels Fly), too. It was such a thrill. I used to attend the awards when I was a little girl, and I’d go to the show with Porter and Dolly and sit in the audience. I’d come down to Nashville, and I would just be part of the crowd and see all the artists, and it was so amazing. That was when it was held at the Ryman. Those were the good old days. That was the one awards show that meant a lot.
Your schedule now takes you on a multi-city theatre tour. What is your favorite aspect of touring and what do you look forward to on the tour?
I’m looking forward to the expressions on the people’s faces, their emotions with the music. We’ll be playing quite a few songs from the new album, and I can’t wait to see the response, to the old stuff and the new stuff.
Sleepless Nights shows once again your strengths as a song interpreter. When country music fans, and music lovers in general, hear your versions—what do you wish for them to take away from the experience?
I hope that it really does inspire the young people today.
I’ve seen quite a few generations at your recent events.
Yes, and that’s really exciting. I think we are all hungry for more traditional sounds in country music, and I hope this record makes the audience go back and find these wonderful classic songs.
Album Review: Sleepless Nights