[NOTE: A little over a year into this little adventure this is, by a pretty substantial measure, the longest piece I’ve written for this blog. It was also, rather surprisingly, the most difficult to write. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have been all that surprised. Being a Patty Loveless fan–I mean a stone cold, dyed-in-the-wool Patty Loveless fan–has always been a bit of a surrealistic experience. It has always meant dealing with a very serious disconnect between truly believing, on the one hand, that she’s a whole lot more than somebody who has made a lot of good albums and won some big awards and realizing, on the other hand, that–even if some people might agree, this notion can still feel more than a bit like barking at the moon.
Yes, there has been perceptive writing (I’d point special attention to David Cantwell’s No Depression reviews which can be found at the magazine’s website; Holly Gleason’s fine liner notes to Sleepless Nights; Bill Friskics-Warren’s lengthy article “Down From the Mountain,” collected in No Depression‘s 2005 anniversary book; and the Laurence Leamer biographical piece from his Three Chords and the Truth referenced below, as well as the treasure trove of media references collected at Patty Loveless.net, by far the best of the websites devoted to her and a model, really, for any fan-site).
And she’s certainly been praised beyond the confines of media devoted specifically to country music, sometimes quite avidly and as far afield as the New York Times, where Terry Teachout once quite truthfully described her being “as passionate and compelling a singer as has ever set foot in Nashville.” Given the best of what Nashville has meant to our music history–and I’ll get to some of the less flattering aspects of what it has meant below–he might as well have said “Anywhere.”
So high praise indeed.
But there are still serious limits on what can be said about an artist within the confines of deadlines, word counts, journalistic objectivity and commerce-driven editorial policies and I don’t know of any artist in any medium–popular or otherwise–who defies those limits as thoroughly as Loveless. Nor do I know any artist of her stature who has received so little even of what the mainstream popular press can hope to offer: Let’s just say there have been no in-depth interviews for Rolling Stone!
So what this really is, is an attempt to understand–to speak from and to the heart in the manner that Loveless’ own music always has. To perhaps bring a new combination of personal and historical perspective to a career that seems to demand such. If music speaks to you more deeply than anything else–and voices speak even more deeply than instruments or orchestration, melodies or lyrics–then your favorite singers end up being the soundtrack of your life and a piece like this is as much by way of paying a debt as praising something I love in hopes that others might either recognize some piece of themselves in my experience (be it with Patty Loveless or someone else) or just have their level of interest piqued or renewed enough to want to think about signing up for this particular ride.
It’s not a debt I, or anyone, can really pay of course. But at least this once I can promise you it’s the very best I could do.]
“I don’t want the music that I’ve recorded….to be forgotten. I hope that I’m doing music that will be remembered, even 100 years from now.”
Patty Loveless (quoted in Montgomery News, 2010)
Some time around the turn of the millennium I got a call at home from a telemarketing service. Some quality in the plaintive young female voice on the other end kept me from my usual misanthropic reflex to punch the button that severs contact and reverts a telephone to what I’ve always considered its most useful and elegant state–the pleasant hum of the dial tone.
The young woman was selling magazine subscriptions and she sounded so plainly and thoroughly dispirited–as if she could hardly make it through the spiel without apologizing for the excruciating uselessness and stupidity of it all–that I ended up actually taking out a subscription to something or other (with the idea I would cancel it at the earliest possible moment).
Once she had gotten over her obvious surprise that someone was actually buying the product, she asked if I could wait on the line while her boss verified my information.
I said I would and waited for her to put me on hold.
Instead, she broke the script and started talking to me, asking, among other things, where I was from. When I told her I lived in Florida, she asked if I had always lived there.
“Yeah, my whole life,” I said.
Then, in a voice that made her previous attitude sound like an especially rousing version of the Hallelujah Chorus, she said:
“Is there anything to do in Florida?”
After I got over my surprise, I found myself playing Chamber of Commerce advocate. Not what you might call a usual role for me.
I assured her that there was plenty to do in Florida. I think I even mentioned things like beaches (which I never “do” myself–nothing there but water you can’t drink and skin cancer as far as I can tell).
I played up the positive points, though. I would have told far worse lies if I could have made her believe in a brighter future. She had that kind of affect on me.
“I sure wish I was there,” she said. “I’m from West Virginia and there’s nothing to do here.”
“Well,” I said. “You sound pretty young. Maybe you’ll be able to leave some day. Get out and see the world.”
Young as she was, she answered in the pained, wistful voice of a thousand years’ experience teaching hard-earned wisdom to somebody who just fell off the turnip truck.
“Nobody leaves West Virginia,” she said.
Then, with an air of settling a judgment.
“Not unless they join the military.”
* * * *
There are a few reasons why I’ve had no trouble remembering this conversation in the years since.
One was the wave of sadness that came over me while it was happening–the knowledge that this moment of defeat–which might have been extremely temporary or just as extremely permanent–was all I would ever know of that young woman.
It was the worst I’ve ever felt for someone I didn’t know personally and that alone might have kept the memory coming back from time to time.
But as it happened….there were reminders….
Not long after, the two most famous faces of the “WMD” phase of the Iraq War–Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England–made their various ways into the national consciousness. A couple of very young women who turned out to have at least one rather striking thing in common: they were both from West Virginia.
I guess you could say they joined the military.
Some time in this past year, I got around to watching Winter’s Bone (set in the Appalachia-gone-west of the Ozarks), and I’m sure that long ago conversation is the reason I found the army recruiting scene the most painful and hopeless moment in a movie that pretty much runs on pain and hopelessness.
Then there’s the blasted non-economy, floating on bubbles that are harder and harder to disguise as actual prosperity. A nice daily reminder of why and how we are so constantly being jostled into the position of hustling each other. Like maybe by taking dead end jobs making cold calls and reading life-sapping pitches designed to make each of us a collaborator in the relentless effort to step on the last loose nickel rattling on the last tile of got-it-on-permanent-sale laminate floor.
So, no, I don’t think I’ll be forgetting the sense of fatalism and defeat in that Appalachian voice on my old-fashioned, turn-of-the-millenium telephone line.
Not in this life.
* * * *
Should I be tempted to try, though, Patty Loveless will always be there to call me back.
Loveless isn’t from West Virginia and she never joined the military. She’s from the other side of the proverbial mountain in Eastern Kentucky, though, and it might well have amounted to the same thing.
Except that my long ago correspondent spoke the truth without being entirely accurate. If you’re born with the boot on your throat–or coal dust in your lungs–there are still a few other ways to “leave” besides joining up.
And those ways are real. Of course they are–but Loveless’ way was by far the least likely.
No matter what you’ve heard, talent is rare. Talent-meeting-opportunity rarer still.
Very few indeed manage to ride out on the genius ticket.
* * * *
The bold-faced quote above is probably the closest Patty Loveless has ever come to bragging on herself.
Despite an occasional brash statement in the early days, the traditional country two-step of modesty and self-deprecation has long since come to define both her career and her public persona.
Defined them, that is, even more thoroughly than it does the average country singer’s, which is saying something.
And in her case, I have far less doubt than usual that the definition is “real”–at least as far as it goes.
But I was more than usually glad to come across that “hundred years” quote, because about the time she released her most recent album (2009’s Mountain Soul II, exceptional–and bold–even by her peerless standards) I had come to an inescapable conclusion: I’m sure Patty Loveless is a very nice person, but I’m also skeptical of the idea that anybody produces a quarter-century’s worth of virtually uninterrupted brilliance in circumstances that exist to put limits on that sort of thing (that is, nobody makes sixteen albums in a row–the least of which would be a stand-up moment in any other Nashville career and the pinnacle of all but a handful), without fully intending on some more than usually fervent level to kick every single ass and take every single name.
Strictly non-provable, of course, but sometimes you can’t help what you feel. And sometimes, if you can’t shake a feeling, it’s nice to have some evidence, however scant, that it isn’t all smoke and no fire.
* * * *
Even if she ends up writing the book she some times talks about, I suspect that such evidence as is going to be gathered on Loveless’ very innermost thoughts is likely to remain hard to come by. In a way, that’s all for the best. Because if there’s one other thing I would bet on being the truth in “The Patty Loveless Story,” it’s that she would prefer to be comprehended through a full understanding of her music.
But as far as I know–and despite that share of critical acclaim mentioned above–no one seems to have attempted this on any level deeper or broader than what’s permitted in a record review or a magazine piece. (Apologies in advance to efforts I’m unaware of…and please let me know.)
So if someone’s gonna try to take things at least a small step further–to make a stab at delving into the quasi-mystical side of art and its vagaries without necessarily neglecting history and biography and what not, the truth beyond the facts as it were–I figure an out-of-the-way blog is as good a place as any.
It’s probably wisest to carry out this sort of mission with no one looking over your shoulder.
* * * *
So first, some history:
Loveless may have arrived on country radio with less fanfare than any truly major talent in the history of Nashville.
I got on to her I expect the way a lot of others did–being knocked out by the ease and fluidity of “Chains” and “Timber, I’m Falling In Love” when they hit the radio in the late eighties.
I picked up the concurrent album (1988’s Honky Tonk Angel, launching pad for five hit singles and nonetheless early evidence that she was already up to much more than what could be contained by a radio play list) soon enough and was mildly surprised to find she already had two others out, and had even had a few sizable hits.
More surprising was what these three albums (I acquired the other two in a hot hurry) revealed, which, from my perspective, was this:
“Finally, she’s here.”
(The pronoun was not terribly significant–I’d have thought the same about any male singer who managed to open up so many possibilities all at once while also breaking open commercially.)
Again, I don’t think this idea–or some close variation of it–was unique or even unusual among country music followers at the time.
And if I’m right about that, then I suspect I was far from alone in my subsequent thought either.
“I wonder how they’ll screw this one up?”
And by “they,” of course, I meant also “us.”
Easy as it is to blame the complicated series of mostly downbeat, mostly corporate associations that rest behind the operative word “Nashville,” there’s no denying that, when it comes to the care and preservation of popular art, distressingly familiar repeating patterns always require a large degree of audience participation.
If we get the government we deserve, then we surely get the music we deserve, too.
So I’m not letting “us” off the hook. But I do think it’s fair to claim “we” all knew the historical pattern too well to reasonably expect that even someone as promising and gifted as Patty Loveless could really break it.
[And, here, since those who don’t follow country music may not know the standard Nashville drill–i.e., the “history”–I’ll go over the basics briefly:
Big talent shows up–makes great album or two–then good album or three–then mediocre album or ten–or twenty if the image is solid enough to ensure continued sales–collects requisite awards–acquires “legend” status–can play Opry anytime–size of audience outside of Opry for remainder of career to be pretty directly related to maintenance of persona (making an occasional good record does not hurt, but it is by no means necessary).
There are, of course, variations–some version of “outlaw” (like most things in popular culture, much more easily accessed by men than women) being the most reliable.
But those are the basics. Maybe not so different than the rest of show business, then, but the embrace between audience expectations and corporate control is perhaps a little tighter in this model. More constricting you might say.]
And those constrictions–those historical patterns–are not always a bad thing. Not by any means.
Those very constrictions and patterns have produced a ton of great records.
But they do make you wonder…“what if?”
So in one respect, “The Patty Loveless Story” is the answer.
* * * *
What if somebody managed to take it to the end of the line?
What if one or two great albums turned into ten? Or twelve? Or fifteen and counting?
Since Nashville is bound to run on formulas, what if somebody had the right combination of grit and grace, discipline and inspiration, required to perfect a formula that didn’t wear out?
Not a singles formula (that had been done), or even a series of singles formulas (been done as well, though far less often) but an album formula?
What if somebody set out to sum up not simply some well-defined part of the “country” tradition (that, too, had been done–or was being done–primarily by Loveless’ standout contemporaries like Honky Tonk George and Countrypolitan Randy and Bakersfield Dwight and Bluegrass Ricky and Outlaw Steve, et al), but the whole thing?
What if somebody thought bluegrass and western swing and honky tonk and Bakersfield and countrypolitan and rockabilly and, hell, southern rock and California rock and fifties pop and seventies-style AOR and folk-rock and art song and a lot of other things besides were all part of some larger soundscape that no one had quite defined yet?
And what if somebody sang (and made records) as if all this should be taken for granted, without making any big fuss over it–and kept singing (and making records) that way regardless of whether their career was on the mountain or in the valley at any given moment?
What would that take?
What would that cost?
What would that sound like?
And, not least….
If such a thing did happen to occur…
How would we react?
* * * *
Back in the late eighties, there was certainly no way to predict that Patty Loveless would be the person to answer these questions–questions that had remained safely theoretical until her existence made them palpable and pressing.
All I knew–or at least thought I knew–then, was that she had made three very fine, if slightly uneven, albums which showed an unusual, maybe unprecedented, combination of versatility and ambition. The only thing that was really assured was that whatever check her dreams cared to write, her pipes could cash it (though if I had been paying really strict attention to the trade mags I might have known that she was also making people rather nervous–in Nashville, one sure way to tell if knees are knocking somewhere is when whisper-words start leaking out about somebody’s “pitch control.”)
Promising then, but it was hard to forget how often similar hopes had been dashed before–even by those who had come along only a few years earlier.
The combination was exciting, sure.
But not exactly unheard of.
Over the next few years, the first years of my own response to her music, Loveless–who had fought harder than most to put herself on the map–had more opportunities than most to fall clear off of it.
Her label, which had, according to at least some reliable reports, initially held her back “for her own good” (no, really!), then famously refused to promote her (they had Reba and Wynonna and Trisha to take care of and apparently there was a publicity quota and the manner in which the whole thing was handled very much followed a well-worn blueprint that has, again at least “reportedly,” sounded a death knell to many a burgeoning country career–at least I think that’s where Mandy Barnett and Kelly Willis went). Her vocal chords famously required serious, career-threatening surgery. Her first husband just as famously revealed that she had an abortion while they were married (the soap opera elements reached as far as Wynonna Judd sliding the knife in, on Oprah no less–the morbidly curious who know how to use Google can seek out the details on-line). Her second husband became her producer–and we all knew what sort of history those relationships had! The only thing that had a worse track record than producer/singer marriages in the music business down through the ages was the continued relevance of hard-core or “neotraditional” country singers who refused to soften first the edges, then, soon after, the center of their commitment in the here and now.
Against all that, the only thing Patty Loveless, by then the very model of public reticence, ever had to offer was the music she made. It’s a measure of just how great that music was and is, that it turned out to be enough.
That’s where the genius part came in. Because what happened next doesn’t really happen to mere talent.
The label change turned into a boon. The surgery just gave her the sort of narrative PR writers need to sell a hook. Her old husband’s betrayal merely made her new choice of husbands seem that much wiser, even before the staggering albums they made together improbably took her step-by-step up the mountain to something like country music superstardom–all while pulling off the even more astounding feat of staying happily married.
The gold records turned to platinum, the awards rolled in, the singles charted ever higher (and God what singles they were: “Halfway Down,” “Here I Am,” “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am,” “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye?”…smile probably isn’t the right word for the memories they bring because the least of them had more bite than showed on the surface and the best of them were stabs in the heart, but smiling I am…it’s probably the fire and brimstone in me)–all without the merest trace of the usual compromise.
Heck, if anything, success just made her fiercer, rangier, and when was the last time that happened, in country music or anywhere else?
Somewhere along the way she turned into Nashville’s new version of the singer’s singer and the press (mostly the country and general entertainment press, as the establishment rock press–which always needs to be told what to think about country music and likely wouldn’t have believed the truth about Loveless even if the sources they usually relied on to clue them in had grasped it themselves–chose to mostly ignore her) not only lauded her coal-miner’s-daughter-for-a-new-age biography (probably best profiled in Laurence Leamer’s afore-referenced Three Chords and the Truth, an already deservedly classic account of Nashville’s nuts and bolts, of which the chapter on Loveless is an emotional highlight) but insisted the back-story, even more than the music itself, was proof of her pristine purity.
* * * *
Which seemed funny to me, because somewhere along the way, right in this mid-nineties hey-day actually, I came to a couple more conclusions.
One was that she wasn’t going to quit. She was going to keep right on making great albums that cut deeper and deeper (and eventually added up to far, far more than the considerable sum of their parts), and that she was going to do this irrespective of where the radio or “the business” went.
The other was that an utter absence of the very “purity” which was so frequently cited–the one thing that dominated such narratives as a hard-pressed “entertainment” media could come up with–was her greatest strength.
But that was hardly all of it. At this point, what I thought, or what any other country music fan (or journalist) thought, was beginning to be beside the point. Those who were most comfortable with the idea of Loveless as no more or less than a particularly gifted practitioner of well-established tradition could find plenty of evidence for loving her on that basis alone. Just as somebody like me–who tended to stick her on mix-tapes between say, War and the Rolling Stones; who found her a perfect running mate for Lynyrd Skynyrd or Al Green on road trips; who took her seriously when she reminded people she had been formed by both her hard-scrabble country childhood and the rock singing she did in the drink-til-you-drop Carolina bar scene in her early twenties–could love her for a whole other set of reasons.
So she had carved her own space and no surprise.
It’s not like Ralph Stanley, the greatest living bluegrass singer, was making anything up when he called her voice “lonesome” and, as the years went by, she became a lonesome presence indeed.
A stubborn one, too.
Having got to the top of the mountain the hardest way possible, (the “turned my back on Nashville, married a rock drummer, had an abortion, fell out with my family, sank into drugs and drink all the way up to a serious attempt at suicide, made my way back, crawled my way up the charts, thought I had it made once, then got dump–er, traded away–by my label just before I found out I needed serious throat surgery” way) the next question was whether she would finally give in.
She could have been forgiven for bending at least a little. Especially since she had an “out” built into her original approach–a path she had burned for herself (this is where the lack of purity, and the genius, came in)–the path that was now brightly lit by the easy assimilation of modern phrasing (which was really just her phrasing, no matter how quickly others caught on and made it seem like it had been in the air all along, just waiting for any-old-body to breathe it in as inspiration and breathe it right back out as money in the bank) into the old reliable lyrical themes and ever-more-lightly twanged accents by one freshly-minted, born-in-the-suburbs superstar after another who couldn’t hold her coat.
Yes, it would have been easy to bend, given that she was now being hotly pursued by virtually every singer in Nashville who didn’t fit the laconic male model that stretches back as far as the music itself (and which is, at least for now, the only standard Nashville model that has survived the long, hard years since, though I should hasten to add that it has done no more than survive).
Very easy indeed…It’s okay to bend Patty. We’ll forgive you…
* * * *
She did not bend.
She did wind it down with a new sort of formula:
Win the big awards (CMA Album of the Year in 1995, at the time a stretcher of an achievement for either a woman or a hard country singer, and a belief-defying one for an actual hillbilly who was both; CMA Female Vocalist of the year in 1996; ACM’s equivalent in 1996 and 1997).
Release one more great album (1997’s Long Stretch of Lonesome–ha, ha, ha, get it?). Bleed it out with a closing track called “Where I’m Bound,” that might be her singular masterpiece if there can be such a thing in such a career.
Then take three years off.
Oh, I know. There were probably reasons that went beyond the obvious. There are always reasons that go beyond the obvious. There was reporting of the reasons–obvious and beyond–at the time. Muted, respectful. Just taking a break. Trying for a kid with the man she loved (a kid which never came–Leamer’s piece, written when the issue was still in doubt, strongly hinted that she saw it as a possible judgment on her abortion, though with what sourcing was impossible to tell).
Back soon, then. No worries. Nothing by any means really original or interesting or other than obvious.
In that respect, at least, she was normal, predictable. On the public relations side, she always was.
And, of course, she kept in touch.
Sort of. Guest appearances and the like.
But just in case you wanted to be especially stubborn–just in case you wanted, on either a conscious or subconscious level, to send some sort of perfect message about your commitment to something other than stardom, to being relevant “a hundred years from now”–you could do worse than release an album called Long Stretch of Lonesome and have the last song on it be heart-stopping even by your unearthly standards and be called “Where I’m Bound”–before you basically walked down off the top of the mountain.
If those were her first thoughts–and I have absolutely no reason to believe they were except for the perfect symmetry of it all–then she surely had second ones.
You gotta believe even geniuses are human. Probably never more human than when, having stepped aside for a rest, one finds herself watching a lot of talented somebodies who decidedly aren’t geniuses carry on (and on and on), right there on the other side of the door she blew open, reaping all the big-voiced benefits of pure commerce without ever quite getting it.
That is, not quite getting it except as commerce.
Hard to believe you wouldn’t notice, if you were her.
So, finally, when she came back with 2000’s Strong Heart, it certainly seemed that she had bent, that she had–at long last–done something we might just have to forgive her for after all! It was the kind of album any good country singer–or just any good singer period–could have made. Or at least it sounded that way, compared to where she had left off.
At the time, I felt like holding a wake and I probably wasn’t the only one.
Listening back these days it sounds better
Give or take Miranda Lambert–the good singer/genius writer/lights-out-suburban-raised-superstar who was by no means necessarily bound to show up in Loveless’ wake and therefore should never be taken for granted–I doubt any talented somebody has made better in the years since.
It was disappointing, then, only in the context of Loveless’ own career.
But the disappointment was real enough. Maybe because it sounded like the first time she had chased the radio instead of letting it chase her and it was hard not to conclude that relief was the appropriate response among us die-hards when it did not exactly set the woods on fire.
It sounded, in other words, like the run was over.
* * * *
So, okay, there it was. She had given us far more than we ever could have expected or reasonably hoped for.
She had fully earned the right to bend–to do what virtually every long-lasting major country star has done to survive at some time or other (unless, like Hank Williams, they literally don’t survive long enough to come all the way up against the choice).
And then, quite understandably, she had done what she had every right to do.
She had bent.
* * * *
If she had–and later developments frankly made Strong Heart sound more like a transition to something bolder than I could have possibly imagined at the time than a true capitulation–then it didn’t take her long to snap back.
Her next release was the first Mountain Soul album and it once again gave the press and a lot of fans (new and old) a handy narrative. Mountain girl who made good–who got out of those hills and past those dead-end jobs without joining the military or even “going pop”–goes back to roots. If there’s any story line country music fans (me included) are more of a sucker for than that one I haven’t come across it.
Better if it’s true, of course. And in this case it was.
To a point.
What struck me most about Mountain Soul when it was first released to rousing acclaim in 2001–actually winning some real accolades from the rock press which loves those good old back-to-the-roots stories as much as anyone, even when the roots stretch back to that part of the world they collectively trust the least, trust even less than all the other parts of the world they typically condescend to–is that it sounded like what it quite frankly still sounds like.
Which was/is a really good Patty Loveless album.
A clear step up from Strong Heart. Maybe ahead of a few of her other albums, certainly a half-step behind the very best. Sure there were new elements, mostly in the margins and mostly amounting to honing in on certain aspects of her music that had always been present. That shouldn’t have surprised anyone who had been listening close down through the years. There were always new elements on a Patty Loveless album–and she was always honing in on some subtle something or other.
And those elements–even “back to the roots” elements–always had to be “in the margins” simply because the original concept had been so broad-based–had left so much space to be filled back in the days when we could not yet know that the only person who was going to live all the way up to the implications of Patty Loveless’ early music was Patty Loveless.
So it was frustrating in a way to see her finally get some mainstream recognition for going “back” to roots she had not only never left (some did, in fact, note that), but had actually long since recognized more possibility in than even most of her admirers cared to acknowledge.
More so when it was so obvious that she was only being what she had always been, which was her utterly unique self, hiding, as always, in plain sight.
And, of course, that mainstream recognition quickly went away and the old “neotraditionalist” (or whatever) label came back with a vengeance.
This time around there was at least a little bit of truth in advertising, if only because she had started to become her own tradition.
Now, to be fair, this happens on some level to nearly all truly great country singers if they last long enough. There’s no other form of American music that leaves the past behind as slowly and regretfully as country. So a form-shifter–somebody who announced up front that she was a combination of “Ralph Stanley, Loretta Lynn and Linda Ronstadt,” but did so in a suitably matter-of-fact manner so as not to shake anybody up in case they started thinking about what such a combination might truly mean, especially if it was really just shorthand for something even grander and scarier (give her half a chance and she would start name-checking Otis Redding and Percy Sledge, and as spiritual rather than stylistic inspirations)–was almost bound to end up with some kind of semi-legendary status if, like Loveless, they had the goods to pull the whole thing off.
[Incidentally, this works itself out in Nashville terms by, among other things, the number of invites you get to be on somebody else’s record, a practice that has kept Loveless so busy throughout her career it would be worth its own essay. By my calculation, which is almost certainly incomplete, this runs to about four additional albums’ worth of duets, tribute appearances, etc. Everything I’ve heard is first rate and much of it luminous. Of course it is.]
But in Loveless’ case it came to a bit more than usual, because her embrace of her own “tradition”–the string of fine records she kept releasing with ever more stringent adherence to old-time instrumentation and ever more subtly adventurous vocals–happened to coincide with a New Depression in the country at large.
By design or yet another “coincidence,” she started singing like the last Depression, the one the history books tell us about, never ended at the very moment when the kind of economic unease that had long become associated almost exclusively with urban ghettos, rural shotgun shacks and Loveless’ own native Appalachia (meaning associated with the specific elements of “those people” who have produced both the bedrock of America’s great music traditions and the framework of its Pentecostal sense of impending comeuppance) began to spread to the comfortable neighborhoods–consequences that were felt long before the bubble economy’s various implosions allowed them to be quite so plainly seen.
There were six albums in nine years, starting in the “boom” times and ending at the very moment when the forces forever grinding (and grinding and grinding) us commoners into fodder showed their fangs for just a fleeting moment before the necessary re-jiggering and papering over could provide them with a new set of disguises so we could all start holding hands and smiling along together again.
Six albums in nine turbulent years then.
A heavy pace for someone who no longer seemed more than marginally interested in trying to remain “mainstream.” Four were specifically labeled throwbacks–the two Mountain Soul albums sandwiched around a traditional Christmas album that was better than anybody else’s traditional Christmas album and a revelatory “oldies” tribute that was an instant gold standard for another sort of Nashville standby–all that, plus two more stabs at staying in touch which, at their best, beat everything on the radio to pieces and got hardly any play at all.
Nashville regressed, as Nashville periodically does.
She moved on–in ways almost nobody ever does.
Made sense. Who better, after all, to provide a soundtrack for the age when the skies started keeping a hint of gun-metal gray no matter how much the sun shone and the ghosts finally wandered down from the mountains and started haunting suburbia–a suburbia which has become so far-ranging and ubiquitous that even country singers are raised there these days!–in the form of foreclosure signs and empty strip malls and meth labs and jangled nerves.
That was Patty Loveless in the decade just past.
* * * *
Along about here I should mention that this is how I heard it. My own specific, purely individual reaction.
By then, Loveless had given us a lot of the answers to those questions I posed above. Which meant all reactions were more than usually personal. By that time, even the evasions were personal. Yes, she had sold a lot of records. Enough to mean she’ll never be poor again. Enough, I suppose, to create factions of a sort within her own loyal fan base (arguments, perhaps, about her MCA period versus her Epic period, or her “commercial” period versus her “roots” period). But she had also gone deep down in the connection, to that place where the “reaction” gets not just personal but very, very twitchy.
And, of course, she had done so without espousing any kind of topical “politics.”
The really great artists–the ones who reach the last, deep place by finally bringing everything down to a level so close to the heart it doesn’t really matter what the rest of the world thinks about what is going on between you and them–don’t generally do politics, and, if they do, they don’t usually do them for long.
The really great artists don’t generally “do” anything very specific.
Except be–a process they make very specific indeed.
And along about here, so that no one will get the wrong idea, I should also mention that hers is not a bleak vision.
Hardly. (In fact, of all the wondrous aspects of Loveless voice, perhaps the most wondrous is her ability to utterly excise country’s traditional reliance on self-pity from lyrics that seem to beg for such and replace it with an astringency that alternates between relieving tension and ratcheting it up, not always in the order you might expect based on the last time you listened to that particular song. Anyone who needs proof might start by listening to her version of “Busted.” The attention it got when Mountain Soul II was released derived from her restoration of Harlan Howard’s original lyrics, which had been long since been changed from the perspective of a coal miner to that of a cotton farmer because Johnny Cash wanted to record it and, as he put it, he didn’t know anything about mining coal. The most famous versions–by Cash, Ray Charles and John Conlee, all fantastic–had at least a trace of sardonic distance. Loveless has a sense of humor, but she doesn’t do “distance.” When she sings about being driven mad, she brings it close. Not so close you drown in it, just close enough for you to wonder how she keeps it together–and if it will last.)
So not a bleak vision. No sir.
Just a guarded one. A line-walking one.
Okay, so the line is between faith and doubt and she walks it more steadfastly and more often than even the gospel Elvis or the pre-gospel Al Green did (just to mention the only two who have ever walked it at all). And she may not get on for a particular song. But if and when she does, she never, ever falls off. She always–always–hangs on and walks through to some place nobody else can get to.
But no, it’s not bleak.
Wary, I’d call it. A reminder that rock or rap or soul might be mostly about standing up and being counted even at their bleakest, but country, like the blues, is–even at its sunniest–about keeping your head down and surviving, about digging in for the long haul. About remembering that, if mighty edifices are going to be erected, somebody has to be the floor. And if the walls are going to fall, somebody has to rise up out of the dust that’s left behind and carry on.
Build new walls if you will.
And for wariness, for being guarded, for never failing to remember the need for the floor–or the fates of those who are destined to lie on it whether they learn to love where they’re from or not, to be forgotten until there’s a war to fight, or a row to hoe, or coal to be mined–for digging in, who better than Patty Loveless?
This is, after all, a woman who has said that her political views are as private as her sex life and has stuck by that in an age when suggesting your sex life is private is generally taken as a sign of arrogance, a decided unwillingness to play along and be a good sport. And, unlike nearly everybody else who says the same things, has stuck by it.
Like I said. Stubborn.
Not bleak. Just cautionary.
So, in my own personal, twitchy way, I have no doubt whatsoever that she would have made exactly the same records in a time of plenty and good stewardship as she made in a time of waste and want and the attendant unease. She just would have made them about the quality of the air in the hard times coming instead of the hard times already here.
I also do not doubt that it would have been just as difficult to really tell which songs she had lived to the fullest and which hadn’t touched on her personal experience at all–those she had “merely” observed.
Or that she would, under any given broad set of circumstances, have mastered the trick of destroying the utterly meaningless distinction post-post-post-modernism believes is the only thing that means anything at all. That she would have mastered that trick which only the very greatest singers master because only the very greatest singers can consistently wipe out the boundary between experience (theirs…or yours?) and imagination (theirs…or yours?).
I have no doubt that she would have been just as good at making the high times tremble as she was at making the worst times bearable.
No, not bleak, then. Not bleak over the long haul no matter how close to the bone she might have made “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” cut as the years went by, or what that “It’s like a razor on me, knowing you want to be free” line from “Baby’s Gone Blues” sounds like when I listen back now and feel it reaching for my throat.
Not bleak, just fatalistic. Always moving back to the center, where most of us live our lives.
And therefore not truly fashionable.
* * * *
Which might finally be why it’s been more than usually difficult for even the best contemporary music writers (more than a few of whom clearly love her) to capture the essence of her art within the limitations of a “publishing” tradition that is fighting for its collective life.
Because there is no one shining, easily narrated and assimilated moment that defines Patty Loveless. No signature tune or album or “event” that sums her up–or sums up even half of what I’ve said here, which is only a fraction of what there is to say–in any way that is even remotely satisfactory.
No narrative on which a hat can be hung in such a way that a broad audience of even a few thousand like-minded people might agree that “yes, this is the right hat, the hat that covers all that needs to be covered!” while also remaining at least somewhat true.
I don’t need to guess about this. I can just cite my own experience.
Because, much as I know better, I’ve dismissed half a dozen of her albums as “pretty good” over the years, only to find them creeping back into the humdrum of my daily life or my world view or my CD player because I’ve found that this supposedly “old-fashioned” hard country singer who rarely writes her own songs and draws on the same pool of Nashville talent (writers, players, backup singers–whether the one constant, that enormously gifted producer/husband, Emory Gordy, Jr., who has been on board for fourteen of her sixteen albums, is the best record man in Nashville because that’s just who he is or because he happens to be the one Patty Loveless put her trust in, is a question that runs along the chicken vs. egg paradigm…unanswerable) as everyone else, has been running out ahead of me yet again.
This was brought home most powerfully when a day long driving trip through Georgia and the Carolinas in the fall of 2009, with the just released Mountain Soul II for a constant hour-by-hour companion to the relentless and readily visible evidence of the deep-in-the-bone economic blight that had spread from the usual forgotten small towns and inner cities all the way to the interstates, made me realize that this was what the decade (or maybe several decades) prior had been leading up to. Suddenly, all the chances she had taken–or refrained from taking–with that matchless voice that still sounds like we dreamed it up, the utter refusal to give in to excess or stray from the heart of whatever she was singing to or about for even a single second, even when the trends brought on by the passing years and, oddly enough, the extension of her own pervasive (if rarely acknowledged) influence, made that more and more clearly the “safe” option, made perfect sense.
And a whole lot of what I had missed–in the world at large and in her music specifically, going all the way back to Strong Heart a decade before–was illuminated.
After which I started listening to her older albums in a different light and found that they, too, were of a piece.
That what I heard today might help me finally make sense of something she did twenty years back.
And vice versa.
* * * *
And why, pray tell, should that matter?
Well you may ask.
Heck, I live in America. And, warts and all, I’ve never (absent youthful wanderlust), had much desire to live anywhere else, not even the day after an election.
But I know a few things.
I know we’re the people who always think we can run away from everything. Who are ever so sure that–never mind William “the past isn’t dead it isn’t even past” Faulkner–the past is really just helpless. Helpless because it will always be around but it will never catch up.
Not to us.
Not out here away from the mountain hollows or war-zone city streets. Not out here in nice safe white middle-class neighborhoods where we’ve long since proved we can breed a Nashville cat quick as a country club lawyer.
Out here, we always know that no matter how many times we sell our collective soul, we’ll always figure out some way to buy it back!
If Patty Loveless may well be–as the fine blog-site Country Universe put it–“the last of the great mountain singers who will ever find mainstream country success” then it’s our loss.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence, after all, that this last great mountain singer (who also happens to be virtually the only modern country star who was raised with the poverty wolf once so common to southern rural childhoods at least within howling distance of her door) has been especially good at catching the tenor of these particular times even as she never strays very far from country’s time-honored subject matter.
Who else would we expect to remind us Americans–we the people who are always sure we can run away from the consequences of whatever sins we care to commit–that we really can’t? And how else would she remind us except the way such voices have always reminded us? Not by preaching sermons–not ever, not Cotton Mather/Jonathan Edwards sermons or Pat Robertson/Billy Graham sermons or even Bob Dylan/Bruce Springsteen sermons–but by singing broken love songs and love’s gonna last songs. Saturday night drinking and dancing songs that sometimes, but only sometimes, end with hangovers. Grandpa songs. Mama songs. Working class hero songs. Gonna leave songs, gonna stay songs, come to Jesus songs, go to the devil songs. Same old, same old.
Who else would want that job, let alone embrace it, if not the last great mountain singer?
Who else could step into that role and just be?
For all that I think the answers to those questions are obvious (nobody else, that’s who!), I don’t finally claim any special insight into Patty Loveless or her music. I think most of what I hear is also pretty obvious. And I think the reasons for even some of her most ardent and devoted fans to hold this particular idea of her music at arm’s length–to find only comfort, only updated tradition–are not merely understandable but eminently reasonable. You want/need to be healed, by all means be healed. I would have to be a moral idiot to ever begrudge anybody that. I sometimes want/need to be healed myself.
Besides that, I’m not even sure I’m “right!” There’s no way I can be. My position feels a little too extreme for that. Lots of people think she’s real good. Lot’s of people think she’s “great!”
I don’t think she has to bow down to anybody. Ever. And, yes, that feels a little extreme. I’m not sure too many people have made that point.
So sure, I’ve been hacking away, bit by bit, at this little “think-piece” for months on end. But, when it’s all said and done, maybe Patty Loveless really is/was just another good country singer and I’ve been crazy all these years to think she was/is ever so much more. Maybe she doesn’t really need to be parsed any longer or deeper than what’s generally done for an interview in the local paper or a nice complimentary write-up for her latest record in the better class of trade mags or another re-hash of her too-good-to-be-made-up biography.
I honestly don’t know. This sort of response–this twisty, personal reaction thing I have going on–does not run to the sort of proof offered up by mathematical formulas or rack sales.
The only thing that keeps convincing me–keeps making me doubt and then not doubt–is her records.
And for all her massive talent, all that rock and soul variance so subtly intertwined with the specifically country verities, all that freedom unleashed by all that ceaselessly unfailing (one might almost say ungodly) discipline, what I really hear in those records is not so much the considerable thrill of her technique or her matchless timbre, (so country and so not, so pure and so not, so “traditional”…and so not) but a quality of the soul.
No voice, however great–however “perfect”– could combine country’s (or America’s) aspirational side with its fatalistic side so adroitly and for so, so long, or could ever keep such constant faith with a past the present seems so determined not merely to forget but to crush–all on its own.
No voice could achieve that long-standing miracle without resort to constant habits of clear thinking and wrestling with hard choices. We know this because “miracle” voices happen along in Nashville and elsewhere every few years and sometimes more often than that.
And some of those voices last a very long time. A few manage to tease out the perspiration-inspiration equation it takes to become institutions even.
And deservedly so. God knows.
But very, very few remain miracles. Sooner or later, even the very greatest artists learn that perspiration really is the easy part. And then they set the commitment inspiration requires aside to take a well-deserved day or year or decade to just get along.
I have no idea what part of Patty Loveless won’t let her do that. What part of her never, ever lets her just go along.
Oh sure, she can shut up for a while.
Heck it’s been three and a half years (and, to be fair, a lot of familial heartbreak) since her last record, and there was no mountain to come down from–no stardom to reject–this time around.
So absolutely she knows how to shut up.
That she can’t seem to do and I have no earth-shaking insights at all as to the “why.”
* * * *
I do have a few impulses (“thought” would be far too elevated a word).
We do actually have some things in common that might inspire some sort of greater than usual fellow feeling. We’re both southerners with deep Appalachian roots (East Tennessee back to the 1780s for me, Eastern Kentucky back however far for her). We’re about the same age. Evidently, we both know something about growing up in a household where a beloved parent struggles mightily to keep from coughing up a lung, and does so full courtesy of the man (coal dust from the mine for her father, cotton dust from the mill for my mother). We both moved and found out what it was like to be a fish out of water at the age when you really, really want to be swimming along with everybody else–me being gently mocked for being too city in the country, she being not-so-gently mocked for being too country in the city.
Maybe all those things, plus a few more I won’t bore you with, add up to something.
But I actually doubt it.
Like I said, I think what I hear in Patty Loveless is pretty obvious to anyone who gets it at all, and mostly inaccessible–except as considerable pleasure and passing transcendence–to everyone else.
For better or worse, it’s probably available mostly to kindred spirits, not common experience. After all, just how “kindred” common experience really makes us is anyone’s guess.
But we know what the heart does.
We know that even in this reality-driven, fact-obsessed, machine-tooled world we’ve made–that is, in fact, carrying these very words to once-unthinkable regions as matter-of-factly as wood feeds fire or water puts it out–it’s still the heart that really understands.
* * * *
Counting her various “guest” appearances and one-offs, Patty Loveless has recorded about two hundred sides. On maybe a hundred and fifty of them, she’s done what a lot of the greatest singers who ever lived did only a handful of times or never at all–worn each one not like a suit of clothes (hard, but every really good singer can do that), but like a second skin. And if the last fifty–the bottom fifty–were the best she ever did, she would still be well worth talking about, still be worthy of whatever “Hall of Fame” she was eligible for.
She’d still be real, real good.
She just wouldn’t be Patty Loveless.
She wouldn’t be the one who decided to find out what the cost/reward analysis was on never giving in. And then went ahead and did it.
So maybe all that’s really required to “get” her is the willingness–or perhaps it’s the need–to have at least one singer in your head who truly believes that’s the only way to be.
* * * *
As I write this, Loveless has not released an album in three and a half years, the longest break in her career. I have no idea if she will release ten more albums or none. Or, if another one does come, whether it is six months away or six years. No way to know if and when the next one does come how I will hear it out of the box. It might blow the top of my head straight off like Mountain Soul II or Long Stretch of Lonesome or 1992’s Only What I Feel. It might take some real getting used to like Strong Heart. It might be real nice to listen to for a few years before it starts to seep into my bones like 1988’s My Heart Had Windows or 2002’s Blue Grass and White Snow. It might announce itself as an instant classic which nonethless won’t reveal its true secrets for years, like the albums that took her to the top of country music between 1993 and 1996.
And, since I can’t say where she’s going, I’ll let the story end (for now!) with where she’s been. I started with the first cut from her first album so I’ll conclude with the last cut from her most recent. Listening to them together might say more about the journey so far–the journey from bottomless promise to faith fully rewarded, the journey each listener probably only gets to take with one or two singers in a lifetime–than another ten thousand words ever could.
[Additional Note: Although this piece took a long time to write, I’m using it to inagurate a new category, “Vocalist of the Month.” The approach will be varied–more fun, less sweating blood, I promise!–but it seems like a good approach to writing in depth about more singers that I care about, which is, after all, still the main focus of this blog.]