Patty Loveless

Real Country Singers Play State Fairs

Music Features Patty Loveless
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It’s the end of April and Patty Loveless is at the York County Expo Fairgrounds in southern Pennsylvania. Though the fair isn’t in session, there’s no disguising the true nature of the Toyota Arena, where lines of folding chairs are set up before a temporary stage—it’s a livestock barn. During soundcheck, notes bounce off the concrete floor and the whitewashed cinderblock walls. Finally the soundman shrugs and says, “All I can do is make the vocals understandable; the other instruments are on their own.”

None of this fazes Loveless. As someone who’s scored Top 30 country singles for 17 years, she’s played hundreds of county fairs. This is her core audience, and she’s pleased to meet with them one more time. Undiscouraged by the problems of playing a non-music venue, she glides through the spartan backstage area as if through a family reunion, greeting fellow members of the Grand Ole Opry American Road Show with a smile and a touch of the hand.

At 47, she’s a strikingly handsome woman. Her bright red bangs and strong jaw set off her girlish features, and she fills out a pink-and-white cowgirl shirt with brown piping and purple snaps. As showtime approaches, she changes into her stage outfit—a pale-blue ruffled blouse and shiny silver-print pants, the less-than-subtle clothes of a country star.

But unlike most country stars, Loveless doesn’t lean on her past hits. As part of the Grand Ole Opry tour, she only has time for five songs, but the first four come from her latest album and they’re songs by such left-field country writers as Rodney Crowell, NRBQ’s Al Anderson, Matraca Berg and Shawn Camp. Loveless would never desert her country audience, but she won’t stop challenging it either.

This is what makes Patty Loveless so special. In an era when most artists either abandon the broad audience to protect their art or abandon their art to protect their broad audience, Loveless does neither. Since the late ’80s, she and husband/producer Emory Gordy have maintained a tightrope balancing act between quality and accessibility, an act so precarious in the crosswinds of radio programmers and music critics, it’s thrilling to watch.

To explain how she does it, Loveless sits down on one of the purple vinyl seats in her tour bus and speaks of her audience as if it was a person with whom she has a give-and-take relationship. Like an old friend, Loveless respects the audience’s feelings but expects it to respect her feelings as well.

“After being on the road all these years,” she says, “I have a good idea of what my audience wants out of me, and I have an idea of what radio wants out of me as well, and I try to give something to both of them. I’ve managed to balance that out. I’ll play the singles for my audience, but I’ll also play songs that aren’t singles. If the audience is hearing a song for the very first time, they’ll come up after the show and say, ‘I love that song, what album is that on?’ They like being challenged; they like getting something different from what radio is giving them.

“I want my audience to be as open-minded as I am. I’m a music lover, too. I still go out and buy my own CDs. Recently, I’ve been listening to Coldplay, Buddy and Julie Miller and Jet. I want my audience to accept any surprises from me. I want them to know that country music is what I’m labeled, but I will cross that line if I want. If I want to go in and do a record with Buddy Miller or Bruce Springsteen, I like to think they’d accept that.”

Loveless opens her show in York with Crowell’s “Lovin’ All Night,” an infectious celebration of sexuality. Like her early role model, Dolly Parton, Loveless has a way of making sex sound delicious and downright wholesome at the same time. She has a bigger voice than Parton, and when she belts out, “We’ve been rocking with a rhythm of a beat of our own,” the rhythm section behind her really rocks, and her sunny soprano irradiates the room as it describes sex not as the wedge that breaks up marriages but as the glue that holds them together.

Since its inception, country music has confronted the marital challenges of temptation, bills, kids, drink, jobs and boredom. But too often, Nashville has shied away from the subject of sex. Encouraged by the example of Crowell and his ex-wife Rosanne Cash, Loveless seems determined to bring this key marital ingredient out into the light where it can be examined.

“I think that freedom’s been good for country music,” she argues. “How can we be honest if we don’t talk about these things? But some people still resist it. I got so much heat from some radio stations, which threatened not to play the song because of the line, ‘Good God almighty, been lovin’ all night.’ They wanted me to edit it out, and I wouldn’t do it. I said, ‘What’s the big deal? In today’s world?’”

In Loveless’ music, sex is woven deeply into a relationship’s complex of emotions. And it’s obvious during her second song in York, which is also the title track of her latest album, On Your Way Home. The song is the monologue of a wife who hears her husband “slipping down the hall” at two in the morning; she flips on the lights and confronts him with the question, “Where do you go on your way home?” The lyrics are a classic country cheating story, but they’re set to pop chord changes, and with each harmonic shift you sense the singer picking up another scent—beer, perfume, fear—and swinging from anger to anxiety to compassion and back again.

Most female country stars would sing the line, “Where do you go on your way home?” as an accusation, as a trap—the man is damned if he lies and damned if he tells the truth. But, in York, Loveless sings it as a question, as if she really wants to know the answer, as if she really means it when she adds, “Tell me the truth, ’cause the truth will set you free.” The character in the song is angry with her husband, but she wants to save their marriage. She doesn’t want an old-fashioned marriage, though, with each spouse inhabiting a separate world from adversarial standpoints; she wants a modern marriage in which the spouses are equal partners, working from the same pool of information.

As the balancing act between art and radio has become ever more difficult, most of Loveless’ fellow travelers have given up the struggle. But not her. On the song “I Wanna Believe,” the third track from On Your Way Home, Loveless clings to the hope that a man’s promises mean something, that an egalitarian marriage can survive over the long haul, and that there’s still a place in country radio for challenging songs. But the very fact that she “wants” to believe implies that doubts linger.

“Because radio playlists are getting smaller and smaller,” she concedes, “you have to be aware of the time frame of a song, which cuts away from what you can do with details. When I look back to 1994 and a detailed song like ‘Here I Am,’ I wonder if it could get on the radio today. We had to cut parts out of ‘On Your Way Home’ to get it played on radio—not words, but little bits of music. It hurt me to do it, but I did it.”

She did it because she wants to connect with that mainstream country audience, and she’ll hurdle whatever obstacles are in her way. “It’s more gratifying for me if the music reaches an audience,” she explains. “I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing their response, especially when they’re into what the song is about and not just the image of the performer. To do that, I’ve had to accept some compromises.”

It’s easy for Loveless to sing about an egalitarian marriage, because she’s in one. She’s been married to her producer and bassist, Emory Gordy, Jr., since 1989, and the two have found a way to share work and responsibility while maintaining individual identities. It’s as tricky a balancing act as dealing with country radio.

“Emory is involved in every bit of my music,” Loveless says, “from going through the tapes to picking the songs to making the arrangements. At the same time, we know when to shut it off. We’re constantly thinking about the music, but we know when to say, ‘The office is closed, let’s have a nice meal together and talk about something else.’ I wear different hats all the time. And the same for him.”

Gordy was Loveless’ producer before he was her boyfriend. But once they started dating, MCA president Jimmy Bowen wouldn’t let Gordy produce Loveless’ third or fourth albums. Bowen had once tried to produce an album by his then-wife Keely Smith, and it led to a blow-out argument in the studio, so he was dead-set against a producer working with a romantic partner.

“I can see how that might happen; there’s the potential for trouble,” Gordy admits. “But when I went back to producing her, we managed to keep the work and personal parts separate. People have wonderful relationships in music without being married or involved in the biblical sense, like Asher and Ronstadt. It’s two different parts of your lives, and one’s not dependent on the other. It’s easier because Patty and I are pretty much agreed on everything musically, and because I realize that the job of the producer is to listen to the artist and not to be the artist.”

Gordy had played bass for Elvis Presley, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle, Ricky Skaggs and Neil Diamond by the time he became an A&R rep for MCA Nashville in 1985. Gordy was working with Tony Brown, a fellow Southerner and a keyboardist who also played with Presley, Harris and Crowell.

“I had an office at the other end of the hall,” Gordy recalls, “and Tony said, ‘Come up and listen to this tape.’ It was from a girl named Patty Loveless. I listened to four or five songs, and I had a visceral reaction. I asked Tony, ‘Where is she from?’ He said, ‘North Carolina,’ and I said, ‘That’s funny; she sounds like she’s from Pikeville, Ky.; she reminds me of string-band singers from that area.’”

Gordy was right. Loveless, who had been living in North Carolina, was originally from Pikeville. She was born Patty Ramey, the daughter of a coal miner who listened to the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe on the phonograph, and of a homemaker who sang Molly O’Day and Kitty Wells songs around the kitchen.

“I was the only one who would go with my father to his church,” she recalls, “because the rest of the family didn’t go in for that old fire and brimstone. The preacher would give his sermon and then he would read out the lyric of an old hymn, like ‘Amazing Grace,’ and the congregation would sing the line a cappella. We called it ‘old line singing.’ Even today, I can listen to that particular style of singing on record, and it just tears me up inside. It’s almost like you’re given your soul and your soul is given over to the music.”

By the time Patty was 11, her family moved to Louisville so her father could be treated for black-lung disease, and the young mountain girl consoled herself in the big city by playing Loretta Lynn songs on a $100 Epiphone guitar. By 13 she and her older brother Roger were singing covers of country hits by Lynn and Dolly Parton. At 16 she was a featured singer on the road with the Wilburn Brothers, the honky-tonk duo who scored a steady stream of hits in the ’50s and ’60s. And by 19 she’d run off with a rock drummer named Terry Lovelace to North Carolina, where she married him. They supported themselves by playing in semi-legal, after-hours rock clubs.

She divorced her husband by the time she turned 27 (but kept his cool-sounding, slightly altered last name), gave up drinking and returned to Nashville, ready to resume the country career she abandoned, along with the help of her brother Roger as manager. But a lot had changed in the years since she’d been away. The progressive-country movement spearheaded by Harris, Crowell and Cash had made a new kind of song possible, and the things Loveless experienced in North Carolina made a new kind of song necessary.

“No longer was I this 15-year-old country singer with an innocent image,” she says. “I had grown up and I wanted to do music that expressed the experiences I’d had in my life. When I started doing interviews and letting out things about my past, Roger was freaking out, saying, ‘You’re going to ruin your career.’ I said, ‘It’s better for me to come forth with this information than for it to come out in the National Enquirer or something.’

“Even before I had moved to North Carolina, I was hanging out with older musicians, and I learned a lot from watching people like Doyle Wilburn go through things in their lives. I learned life is not this big fairy tale. When I came back to Nashville, I noticed there was this change in the music, that artists like Steve Earle were singing about what life is like now, the way we’re living it now, not like the fairy tale we’d like it to be. That’s when I started doing some of that rough-around-the-edges music; I wanted to do songs that expressed my life.”

Brown and Gordy signed Loveless to MCA Records as part of the same binge that netted Earle, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. But of all those artists, Loveless is the only one who has enjoyed sustained country-radio success. She was the only one who had a radio voice, and she was the only one willing to play the radio game.

“Vocally, Steve and Lyle are a little like Bob Dylan,” Gordy points out. “They’re an acquired taste. Patty already had a sound to her voice more acceptable to a country audience. With Steve, you had to get into the song, because he’s not a Frank Sinatra; he’s not a smooth singer. Patty was easier on the ears, and she was willing to work with radio.

“Jimmy Bowen,” Gordy continues, “expressed it succinctly—‘Art is what you do after you finish your business.’ Because radio is the primary, almost sole presenter of country music, you had to get four or five songs done for radio; then you could do the more introspective, more ambitious songs. Once we got our business done, I knew we could fool around a little after that.”

It wasn’t easy for Loveless. It took her a now-impossible six singles to break into the Top 40. But her seventh single, a version of Earle’s “A Little Bit in Love,” reached #2, and its naked ambivalence provided a welcome alternative to country radio’s fairy-tale depictions of romance. Earle’s 1984 version has a nasal twang and throaty chuckle, as if he’s amused that he’s fallen partly in love. Loveless’ 1988 version boasts a similar, finger-snapping swagger, but her vocal is so big, so full that when it falters slightly, her fear that she’s sliding down heartbreak’s slippery slope is revealed. And that lush tone, coupled with a hint of vulnerability, connected with a radio audience as Earle never could.

Like Emmylou Harris, her role model, Loveless wrote a handful of songs but is best as a discoverer and interpreter of other people’s songs. But where Harris combined the work of Crowell and similar vanguard writers with rescued numbers from mainstream country’s past, Loveless combines the vanguard writers with tunes from mainstream country’s present. From the much maligned corridors of Music Row she has plucked terriffic songs from such writers as Tony Arata, Gary Burr, Harlan Howard and Gary Nicholson.

“I don’t draw a line,” she insists. “I’m not just out there looking for hard-core country or alternative country; if I find any kind of song that fits my style, I’m not shy about doing it. I listen to boxes and boxes of tapes, but sometimes I find a song accidentally. For example, I first heard ‘The Trouble With the Truth’ on a radio station here in Nashville. It was such a cool song that I called the station to find out who it was, and it was Gary Nicholson. I like it because it reminded me of something Percy Sledge or Otis Redding might have done.”

Loveless’ finest singing and biggest hits came after she bought out of her MCA contract and moved to Epic in 1992, where her first three records for the label scored myriad Top 10 singles. In 1995, When Fallen Angels Fly led to a CMA Award for Album of the Year, and the following year The Trouble With the Truth scored her Best Female Vocalist honors.

These triumphs were all the more impressive because Loveless swam against the onrushing tide of over-the-top diva singing. Both the pop and country charts were dominated by women who could belt out a high note and make it shimmer with vibrato for measures at a time. Whether it was LeAnn Rimes remaking old standards or Celine Dion warbling movie themes, singing had become an athletic competition where musculature of the throat was more important than knowledge of the heart.

Loveless has the voice for such acrobatics, but she declined to participate. On a song such as “I Don’t Want to Feel Like That,” Loveless’ hushed, understated delivery creates the mood of aching loss far better than a dramatic performance ever could. As a result, our attention goes where it belongs—not to the singer but to the song.

“I’m in awe of those girls like Mariah Carey,” Loveless graciously allows, “but sometimes you can abuse that kind of ability, and it can take away from the song. You want people to get the song; that’s more important than proving you’re a great singer. In a song, you’re playing the part, just like an actress plays a part in a script. If the song doesn’t call for a big vocal moment, you shouldn’t do it. It takes away from the song for me.”

Long Stretch of Lonesome, released in 1997, is Loveless’ finest achievement, but it was also her first album in a decade without a Top 10 single. She tried to placate radio with the polished, light-hearted country-pop of her 2000 album, Strong Heart. But she failed to win back Shania-infatuated radio programmers, and she disappointed her progressive-country fans with the weakest album of her career. So she decided to make a 180-degree turn. She decided to make a bluegrass album.

“She’s always had that mountain quality in her voice,” Gordy says. “Ralph Stanley heard it—he’s a huge fan of Patty; it’s a mutual thing. So he invited her to come to his annual festival outside his hometown of Coeburn [Va.] in 1992. We threw together some of our road musicians and some local guys and did the festival totally acoustic. She had never done anything like that before. On the way back, we listened to the tape, and I said, ‘You know, you should do an album like this.’”

Loveless repaid Stanley by singing duets with him on two of his albums: 1994’s Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and 1998’s Clinch Mountain Country. She wasn’t part of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, but this glaring omission was remedied when she was invited to be part of the subsequent Down From the Mountain tour. During the tours, she and Gordy made their own string-band album, Mountain Soul.

Epic Records gave them a small budget, because the label was sure an acoustic country album couldn’t sell more than 30,000 copies in the new millennium. But it sold 10 times that amount, and was voted Country Music Magazine’s best album in the year-end critics’ poll; Loveless herself was selected as Best Female Vocalist. Once again she challenged her audience, and her audience responded.

“So, after Mountain Soul,” she explains, “Emory and I were talking about doing a honky-tonk album, with songs like ‘Born Again Fool.’ On Your Way Home didn’t end up quite like that, but it was an extension of Mountain Soul in many ways. Once again there’s no piano and lots of mandolin and fiddle; once again the songs had a traditional feel. After doing Mountain Soul, I felt so much relief from releasing all that music that had been bottled up inside me that it gave me the courage to say with this new album, ‘OK, this is me; this is what I’m going to do.’”

The most obvious connection to the previous album is “That Ain’t The Grandpa I Know,” which boasts an acoustic string-band arrangement and a storyline about a grandfather’s funeral. But instead of the expected maudlin tale, the Tim Mensey/Shawn Camp song is a complaint about the way modern funerals smooth off the rough edges and try to turn our relatives into something they’re not. Loveless’ vocal tries to recapture the ornery old man her grandfather really was, before a funeral director dressed him in a pinstripe suit and placed him in a casket; the droning fiddle and twangy dobro try to recapture a lost essence of country music.

“When I sing ‘The Grandpa That I Know,’” Loveless says, “I remember a funeral for my uncle which had a graveside tent and an old Baptist preacher, like in the song. I remember a conversation with Emory about his grandfather, his Papa Cochran, out there plowing with his overalls and mule. What an amazing image. When my sister was buried, she requested that she be buried in overalls, not dressed in a white dress to the max.

“Not every song has happened to me, but I can take another person’s conversation and sing it as if I’m telling their story. When I’m onstage, I can tell the audience stories about my life or stories that the songwriters told me or stories that friends and family have told me. I try to keep in mind that someone out there has been through this situation. Music has been a good friend to me, so I think it can be a good friend to someone else.”

While on the Down From the Mountain tour, Loveless shared a bus with Emmylou Harris and Buddy and Julie Miller and got to know them well for the first time. She later recorded the Millers’ “Looking for a Heartache Like You,” and now wants to tackle more Americana songs. But the problem remains: How can she get these songs through the narrow gate of country radio and to her longtime audience?

“Getting the music to the people is more frustrating all the time,” she declares. “I try to work with the label and compromise, because I understand that they’re just trying to do their jobs. They get beat up quite a bit, going out there to promote the music. You want to grow and try different things and experiment, but it’s hard because you have to think about what the label has to present to radio.

“I’m looking for something that will satisfy me as well as my audience. Everyone complains that there aren’t enough good songs, but there have been times that I’ve heard a great song that’s been around 10 years and never been cut. Like Lucinda Williams. We need something that’s going to attract the future country audience, and it may be from Lucinda and some of these other artists that you’re not hearing on country radio. I’m always searching for something new. On the next record, I’ll listen to advice, but I won’t do anything I don’t want to do.”

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