[Sidebar] July 30 - August 6, 1998
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High lonesome sound

Patty Loveless sings straight from the heart

by Jim Macnie

[Patty Loveless] You get pissed or get sad and talking's nowhere 'cause it takes work to form sentences and sentences never seem to work -- meaning they don't get the job done, meaning they don't get the love back, meaning you're still alone. And if being alone's not what you're looking for, then those bad, bad days that Gram Parsons mourned in "$1,000 Wedding" turn into the bad, bad nights that Patty Loveless explains in "Nothin' But the Wheel." Two-lane farm road, 3 a.m., foot on the gas, mind on nothing 'cept putting miles between you and the person who has decided you don't matter anymore.

Some voices can get to the bluest part of songs -- they just know how to sneak in there and show us how sharp the thorns are. Patty Loveless has built a career on taking her listeners to those spots and dropping 'em off for a spell. One of our best ballad singers, she teaches us about the nexus of disillusionment and sorrow, places where anger can't throw the kind of punches it wants, because it's too bushed from constant fretting. What makes her one of country music's most valuable stars is the fact that she's capable of triumph even when the lyrics fail -- that's gotta be one definition of art, right? "I remember how you used to kiss me / But when I'm gone, you don't seem to miss me," she sings on her latest disc, Long Stretch of Lonesome (Epic). It's an adequate line, but not exactly poetry. By the time Loveless hurls it in the air, however, the regret quotient is in the double digits, and someone is reaching for the Kleenex.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that George Jones helps Loveless get to the bottom of that one. It seems like everybody, even a living legend or two, wants to sing with her. She's one of those vocalists who has the power to bolster every voice with which she harmonizes. A highlight of the new Clinch Mountain Country (Rebel) is her duet on "Pretty Polly" with bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley. The essence of mountain music floats all around the performance.

The 41-year-old Loveless has the home place in her heart. As a kid, her family toured its eastern Kentucky terrain, billing themselves as the Swinging Rameys. Her teenaged singing impressed Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, and when Loretta Lynn quit the Wilburn Brothers, Loveless was recruited. She fled to Music City more than a dozen years ago, arriving at a time when traditional sounds had clout. Her 1988 spin on Jones's "If My Heart Had Windows" was a smash. The hits have continued ever since.

Last winter at Tramps in New York, Loveless jumped up on stage with Jim Lauderdale. The power of her voice instantly boosted the music's energy level, and everything in the room felt different -- even the beer tasted better. Her phrases have a certain voluptuousness to them, but it's impossible to miss the well-disbursed grit that ultimately defines Loveless's sound. We recently got a chance to talk with her about how that grit got in there.

Q: Threads of your past always seem woven into your sound. Your youth in eastern Kentucky and the impact of Appalachian culture, the church and such -- the seeds of mountain music usually show up somewhere in your music. I heard you were taken with the Old Regular Baptists' hymnody. That stuff gives me goose pimples.

A: It's a very soulful form of music. It's wonderful that people are now beginning to hear it out of the churches. That's where Ralph Stanley comes from, or at least it sounds that way -- the old line singing way where the preacher actually speaks the lyrics and the congregation sings the melody. There's something about that just moves you -- it's very, very spiritual.

I used to go to the church with my dad once a month in Pikeville, and the preacher would do a sermon. Now, to answer your question a bit, sometimes I think I went more for the singing and to be moved by these people than I did for the churching. And I think that without acting consciously, as my recording career developed, I've been using a fair amount of that stuffin' the music I do today. In combination with the other music I've learned along the way, of course.

Q: You're able to hear who you're becoming artistically along the way?

A: Exactly. It just squeaks out. I'm not a perfect singer, and I hear my weaknesses. There have been times where writers have sent me songs, demos, and I wished I could sing it as convincing as them. There's something about ownership of a song -- if you wrote it, and sing it yourself, sometimes it feels like it can only be yours. In our race to be commercial we lose a little bit of our individuality. One mistake I think some music makes is trying to clone something else, a Patsy Cline or a Loretta Lynn. I don't get into people-copying.

Q: I can't believe you'd want to go to church as a kid.

A: Well, it was a chance to go somewhere! Our lifestyle . . . of course, our father worked in the coal mines, doing nine, 10-, and sometimes 12-hour days. Providing for the family. So mostly our mother took care of the kids. We had eight kids. I do remember the last house we lived in before we moved to Louisville, around '67 or so. The payment was $35 a month. So it's interesting. We weren't well-to-do. I'm glad I experienced a lot of that, because it's helped me to bring that into the music. I feel like I can have an understanding of what some of my heroes lives were like. As the children got older, mom loved to dance with us. My brother was stationed over in Germany and he brought back a turntable from there, and she'd love to put records on it. Of course, Elvis, but also Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Connie Smith, Molly O'Day. There was a variety. It had to do with different ages with the kids. We didn't have a TV until I was six. And daddy didn't know much about music, but he loved to whistle, and he loved to watch mom dance with his kids. That was our entertainment. Even as the girls and boys hit the teenage years, they loved to dance with mother. I don't have children yet, but that's the kind of thing I'd like to carry on in my own home.

Q: Was Elvis heresy?

A: Dad thought so. When I'd sing along with it he would say, "Honey, you're gonna let that music just ruin you." But there was one time we saw Tina Turner on TV and she was doing "Proud Mary," and Dad said, "Now, there's your woman that can sing." And I said, "Yeah, well, this is rock 'n' roll, Dad." A nice-looking woman with great legs changed his mind.

Q: You're known for having a powerful voice. But I remember a couple of years ago Wynonna telling me she'd like to have the control over nuance that you do. You've said that for some of the songs on Long Stretch of Lonesome you were trying to pay more attention to the smaller vocal moves.

A: I had to find a new approach, because the song "I Don't Want To Feel Like That" is basically someone having a conversation with herself. When a person's going through depression, or when you're in trouble, you talk to yourself. Nobody's around, and you speak in a whisper. It's intimacy, really, an inner self speaking out. There are times with [husband / bass player / producer] Emory [Gordy, Jr.] that we worked the microphone to help out with that. But a lot of it I did with my own voice. Some people have said I don't sing out enough on that one, but that's the whole point. That way wouldn't have fit the mood. A lot of this album has to do with being in the right character, putting your mind in the right place like an actress. There are some people, like k.d. lang, say, who are very theatrical. She gets up there and just about acts it out. She blows me away with that. But I don't act it out as much physically as I do vocally.

Q: From what people have told me, that's not who you are. You're no Type A character.

A: I'm not that physical, that's for sure. That's why I'm glad to have the voice. You can tell by the way I talk, the way I phrase things, it's from my home. In that part of the States -- West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky, up in those mountains -- people talk differently than they do in Brooklyn. Wynonna's from Kentucky, and on her early records you can hear her bringing that out. I'm such a country girl that sometimes it's hard for me to take hold of a song that's already got a pop flavor, and really make it a pop song. That's just not going to work for me. But I know when my voice fits a song and it doesn't. And if it's not fitting right, it's best to give it to someone else and let them wear it.

Q: Your singing is right in the zone of being totally emotional, but not melodramatic. Someone like Reba goes overboard -- you want her to come back down a notch or two.

A: I'm not that type of singer. I can appreciate it, but if you go too far, the song gets lost. People pay more attention to the vocal than the meaning of the song. I'd rather touch 'em with the song than touch 'em with my vocal ability. Whatever moved me to record the song is what I'm trying to put through. "Where I'm Bound" is the kind of thing I've wanted to do for a while. It has that Appalachian thing we were talking about.

Q: "Where I'm Bound" has a sparse sound and religious thrust; it's a bluegrass kind of pop. Have acoustic instruments been revitalized of late? I'm thinking of Alison Krauss's success. Vince Gill has said that when he made his High Lonesome Sound, he was leaning toward a simplicity he'd moved away from. Jim Lauderdale's new record Whisper has an acoustic tune with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Do you wonder what an acoustic Patty Loveless disc would sound like?

A: Maybe one of these days I will, when I don't have to worry about what I have to do for radio. People have asked about me doing a bluegrass album, or a record of mountain music in general. I'd like to. As far as "Where I'm Bound" being acoustic, Emory is a big part of that. He was was a big bluegrass fan. He played with Emmylou Harris, John Denver and others. There's something about acoustic instruments making you able to hear the vocals better. You can get what the song's about rather than it being covered up with a lot of instruments. You know that new form of music called "alternative"? Like the mix of rock 'n' roll and country? The Dead Reckoning guys? Even before that there were people moving toward acoustic. Ricky Skaggs did it in the early years. I think all of country music will go back there sometime. Right now country instrumentation is almost like it was in '70s rock 'n' roll. Some bands are influenced by the Eagles and such. They bring that into their style and that's the reason some records sound too pop or too much alike. They don't really come from the old school of music. But I think they'll go back eventually. I find rock 'n' roll and blues kids do go back with their studies. That should happen more in country.

Q: Is it encouraging to have a lot more songs from a woman's point of view available these days?

A: Well, the songs I do aren't trying to carry a banner saying. "We're the ladies of the '90s and we have freedom of speech," but there are some good ones around, yeah. But there have always been some. When I was 12 years old, I was singing stuff like "You Ain't Woman Enough To Take My Man," and "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' with Lovin' On Your Mind." Some songs speak to women, some to men, but the good ones have the power to bring people together or offer both sides a better understanding of each other. When it comes to a woman in country music, you gotta talk to 'em, because they are the number one record buyers. I feel I've captured a few of those that speak to women, but I don't like male-bashing songs -- can't stand that.

Q: Do men and women hear songs differently? Ever sang one that's gotten a different reaction from both camps?

A: The one that got a lot of reaction was "You Don't Even Know Who I Am." It starts out and you think, "Okay, here's another woman crying about something," and then it swings around and it says he finds her ring on the pillow and he starts to think, "Hey, you didn't know who I was either." They got to the point in their marriage that they didn't know each other anymore. There's been a lot of men that this song just tears up. I've often said that country is the cheapest therapy you can get. Music can be good for your soul. People can be moved to tears.

Q: You don't seem to flinch when it comes to picking songs that are about down-deep anxiety, real basic troubles that serve up human flaws on a platter. The shiny happy stuff seems to be the exception to the rule in your songbook.

A: That's because I know there is a darker side to life. We all have to experience making mistakes. Lord knows I've made mine. People say this is a darker kind of record, but it's not really. It's just serious. I'm a serious type of person. I didn't intend for the songs to be totally dark, there are messages here. There are answers within the songs. Looking for the answers makes you who you are. If you're going to be someone who stays in the dark, well, that bothers me. But there's a life beyond, too. And we can reach that. I'm just a big sucker for ballads. I love slow dancing. I try to find some lighthearted stuff, but it's work for me. Listen to "Where I'm Bound" -- it's about freedom. Being freed from the worry and pain that the song talks about.

Q: Which of your tunes still get under the skin even though you've done it a thousand times?

A: Oh man . . . "How Can I Help You Say Goodbye" still gets me. Another one is "Someday I'll Lead the Parade." And with that we're back to the form of schooling we discussed -- the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe. I didn't realize how much it stuck with me until I was older. Emory heard it in me. He knew it was there without me telling him my influences.

Q: Is it still a real competitive race for the best songs in Nashville?

A: I was actually looking for another fun kind of thing for [Long Stretch of Lonesome]. Because even though it's up music-wise, "The Party Ain't Over Yet" is another serious tune. It's like some pop stuff. Phil Collins has songs that are all serious and sad, but the music's bubbly. People bring us songs, that's how it works. But sometimes you can find songs on your own, if you go to a writer's night and listen. "I'm That Kind of Girl" came that way. The most popular music from a radio standpoint is positive, uptempo things. Ballads are very difficult to get on. But there's a lot of people who want to hear ballads. When I make a record, I'm thinking of balance. But when I go back and listen to what I've actually cut, there are more message songs about life -- stuff that's based on lyrics -- than dance songs. I gear two or three songs for the radio, then the rest I just pick for me. The people who only listen to the hits will be confused sometimes. I'll be doing one of the ballads live, and people will ask, "What a great one, where'd it come from?" And I say, "From my album." It makes 'em feel like you're giving 'em something new.

Q: Is there a fear of growing older in Nashville? There's an "out to pasture" mentality these days. Do the plumb roles go to younger people, like in Hollywood?

A: I know the career's not forever. There'll come a time for me to step aside and let someone else take over. I'm amazed at artists like George Jones, when they tell me the dates they've played and the amount of days they spend on the road. It blows me away. And that's not just country. Go listen to jazz and blues, and see how many of the older players are still doing it so strong. They may not be in the limelight, or heard on the radio as much, but some are at their peak. George Jones still sings great. As long as he's able to do that, he can make records. Me, turning 40 last year, I felt my energy level changing out there on the road. Pop and country artists are different as far as work goes. Pop guys will do an album and tour for a few months after it. Then they'll wait another two or three before they go out again. But country artists tend to work all year. George told me he worked 110 dates this year, and I said, "George, my God, that's what I'm doing!" Little Jimmie Dickens turned 77 and finally retired from the road. I can't see myself doing it that long, that's for sure.

Q: In jazz, the 1980s were a time where one personality swooped in and amended the playing field: there's a pre- and post-Wynton Marsalis sound. Is the same true for Garth Brooks and country in the '90s?

A: Garth basically has a sound that's both honky-tonk and pop. Yeah, he was influenced by a lot of 1970s stuff, Billy Joel and such. But there's a lot of George Strait in there, too. Very much so. I think it was all in the timing for Garth. Some artists, like Reba McEntire and others, were beginning to reach a younger audience when he came along. Rock 'n' roll was losing something, and kids were searching. But I really don't think that Garth's music was any different than a lot of us were doing at the time. He just reached a lot of them. A real lot. I don't know all his songs, but I thought "The Dance" was great, and he projects himself real well.

Q: The same thing with Shania Twain? Did The Woman In Me change attitudes in town?

A: The production on the record was really great. Here again, she reached a young audience. Her music was really danceable; it really got you moving. And she's made her mark. When the record came out my nephew was "Shania, Shania," not "Aunt Patty" anymore. I can understand that. It connected with kids. I haven't really met her yet, but I'd sure like to pick her brain sometime. Garth and Shania are good for country music. We all open doors for each other. George Strait and Reba opened doors for Garth, so . . . Well, let me put it this way: if George Jones and Ralph Stanley hadn't opened a few doors, there wouldn't be a Patty Loveless.

Q: Since you've already told me you're shy, I can guess the answer, but who would you rather spend the weekend with, Patsy Cline or Wanda Jackson?

A: Oh no, uh . . . Patsy. Naw, both of 'em. Hey, wait, I might be too wild for them. They'd discover the hidden Patty.

Patty Loveless will perform at Warwick Musical Theater on Friday, July 31 with Collin Raye. Call 821-7300.

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