December 26, 2008
Three talented ladies unveil a batch of remakes that recharge their creative batteries
Recording a covers album can be a daunting task; only a singer with a clear artistic vision is worthy of the adventure. Even then, the risks involved often outweigh the rewards. But this year, a trio of country’s finest singers proved that such an exercise can be a liberating, and ultimately, satisfying experience.
Sleepless Nights, Patty Loveless’ fourteen-track collection that culls from the traditional country catalog of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s,outclasses much of the original material issued by Music Row this year. But its humble beginnings found Loveless in one of the worst slumps of a career spanning three decades.
Loveless spent most of the ’90s scooping up industry awards and selling gold and platinum. Her success was particularly gratifying for Music Row; she was a critical darling who, with the help of husband/producer Emory Gordy, Jr., framed traditional country music in a contemporary mold. But as Music Row became a pop-oriented culture, Loveless enveloped herself in the sounds of the past. In 2001, she issued a critical favorite, Mountain Soul, a sterling set that embraced her Kentucky upbringing and the stringband stylings of bluegrass and acoustic country. On Your Way Home, a rich blend of shuffling honky-tonk and fiddle-laced balladry, followed in 2003.
Loveless’ last set with Sony Epic, her exquisite 2005 album, Dreamin’ My Dreams, received a cold reception from recordbuyers, and an anti-theft device implanted on each disc caused a malfunction that created unwanted controversy.
She responded by stepping away from the spotlight. In December 2005, Loveless decided to take an extended hiatus from touring. The following spring both her mother and mother-in-law passed away, and her brother endured a life-threatening illness. She escaped her pain by listening to George Jones, Ray Price and Hank Williams; the ready-to-cry quality of their voices served as a steady source of comfort.
Sleepless Nights is an homage to the barroom shuffles and painstaking ballads of yesteryear. Instilling these versions with a fretful submission, she bends to an old memory’s will. Loveless’ renditions are the ultimate compliment to the legends who preceded her; classics such as “Crazy Arms,” “Color of the Blues” and “There Goes My Everything” are mournful epics that teem with unrelenting sadness.
Sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, unlike Loveless, never experienced a commercial bounty. Lynne left Nashville in the mid-‘90s when it became clear that her vision didn’t mesh with the desires of Music Row executives. Moorer also paid a price for her boundary-hopping tunes of heartache, and she fled the major-label system for indie group Sugar Hill in 2004. Both have received zero airplay since their departures.
The pair never divulges too much about their private lives, but both came sufficiently armed when they embarked on their new challenges this year. The famously reticent sisters released separate cover albums that both plum the depths of loneliness. Lynne honored the memory of British soul singer, Dusty Springfield, with the sterling Just a Little Lovin’. Fending off a furious challenge from her inner demons, Lynne belts the blues amidst a relaxed backdrop engineered by producer Phil Ramone. She seethes with a suppressed anger, but she’s charmed enough to pull it off.
Moorer tackled songs written by Lynne, as well as Patti Smith and Gillian Welch on the Buddy Miller-produced Mockingbird, her tribute to the female singer-songwriter. Her smoldering style falls into perfect lockstep with songs of supreme melancholy, and though Nashville neglected Moorer’s stirring blend of alt-country and soulful blues, she uses her creative autonomy to float between musical genres while firing off stinging salvos and heartbroken laments.
Loveless, Lynne and Moorer all succeeded where so many have faltered; they recorded these standards faithfully, but with a style all their own. Their fresh outlooks on these projects weave through each timeless melody and lovelorn lyric, providing ample evidence that a covers album can be just the right career move in the hands of true talent.