September 30, 2009
Mountain Soul II
by Stephen Fales
Inhabiting the highest pinnacle of artistic integrity must be a lonely place to dwell. Patty Loveless remains a commercial exile, of sorts for the crime of being “too country” for country radio and TV. But Loveless is undistracted by the trendy and continues to adhere to her artistic vision, making music that matters, music of enduring merit, music that would make her Appalachian ancestors very proud. Music like her current offering, Mountain Soul II.
Back in 2001, her acclaimed Mountain Soul set a very high standard for artistic achievement. This shining original is a unique blend of Country, Bluegrass and Mountain music. It is a heartfelt tribute to her parents, especially her coal-miner father, and the Appalachian music that nurtured and sustained their family through many tribulations.
Mountain Soul II is yet another labor of love from Patty Loveless and husband/producer Emory Gordy Jr. and a long awaited continuation of the splendid original. The same recipe was followed here with similar ingredients and equally spectacular results. Like the original, Mountain Soul II is a veritable feast of soul nourishing material, brilliantly served up by the finest pure-Country vocalist of our time, and a distinguished array of acoustic players and vocalists including Del McCoury, Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris.
Sandwiched between the stunningly innovative remake of Harlan Howard’s classic, “Busted”, and the exquisite Diamond in My Crown are generous servings of drumless acoustic music, a deeply moving, grassy mountain tapestry that delights and seldom disappoints.
“Busted”, the opener, is an empathetic song of solidarity for the economically downtrodden. Loveless restores Harlan Howard’s original coal mining lyrics with great effect. Raw and richly textured, the song is saturated with Appalachian acoustics that perfectly complement Patty’s twangy and nuanced Kentucky drawl. The melody is bouncy, almost in contradiction to the dire tale, but this is perhaps the perfect mountain irony; the power of music to help bring about the joy needed to cope.
The Bluegrass/Gospel classic, “Working on A Building” is an energetic tour-de-force with the perfectly blended high lonesome vocals of Loveless and Bluegrass master Del McCoury. The song is metaphorical, the work is God’s work, the hands are human, and the building is the Lord’s own. But the imperative is very down-to-earth, especially when interpreted as pertaining to the efforts to alleviate Appalachian poverty, a cause near and dear to Patty’s heart.
Other highlights include the pure Bluegrass Big Chance (transplanted from Dreamin’ My Dreams), a brilliant number by Loveless/Gordy which continues the Pretty Little Miss story from the first Mountain Soul. The song has an iconic Mountain sound that harkens to the hills, and is full of down home humor. It is perfectly crafted in every musical and lyrical detail.
“Bramble and the Rose” is pure passion and poetry, intertwined with the brilliant rustic tones of Loveless’ versatile voice. Few can inhabit the heart of a song like Patty Loveless.
“When the Last Curtain Falls” is a song that Emory co-wrote. The verses are all calm before the storming chorus, and then Loveless unleashes with her husband’s lyrics delivering a chilling cautionary tale of final accountability. It is an attitude adjustment that puts all things into perspective.
Mountain Soul II is inspired and very well crafted, but it does contain some apparent missed opportunities. Conspicuously absent are two up-tempo Bluegrass numbers from Loveless’ repertoire, Pretty Polly and Close By. Their inclusion would have enhanced the clear Mountain identity of the project even more, and would have created a more balanced mix of tempos.
Also the “less is more” philosophy is overdone in places, the sparse instrumentation works very well on songs like Diamond In My Crown, and the two a-cappella Gospel numbers, but some of the ballads might have benefited from some richer, rawer musical textures.
At first glance, there seems to be an over reliance on recut songs from her own catalog. But Patty Loveless brings forth the inherent Mountain Soul hidden in any given Country song, remaking them according to her natural Mountain sensibilities, and connecting more deeply with her own heritage in the process. She lovingly returns the songs to their essence and roots, back to the very origins of Country music deep in the heart of the hills.
Vocally, Mountain Soul II is Loveless at her best. Her crystal pure Appalachian alto deftly and fluidly shapes each note with rich and resonant tones and an uncanny sense of nuance that comes only with inherent talent and hard gained artistic maturity.
“Diamond in My Crown”, is the crown jewel of this remarkable album. It is hymn-like in its majesty, accompanied by an antique family pump organ, and some beautiful backing by composer Emmylou Harris. Loveless glows with unleashed vocalizations that are positively chill inducing. Transcendent, sublime, superlatives would be understatements when describing the Loveless interpretation of this gem.
Patty Loveless has once again transmuted the coal of hardship an heartache into pure golden tones. This Appalachian alchemy has yielded yet another diamond for her hard won crown. Mountain Soul II is nothing less than another 21st century Patty Loveless masterpiece.