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Part of the Family

Patty Loveless’ bluegrass and mountain music cred evident on new release



Patty Loveless

Mountain Soul (Epic)

At first, you might think that Patty Loveless is following a trend with the release of her riveting collection of bluegrass and acoustic country, Mountain Soul. After all, this kind of music is a certified Hot Thing these days, with the platinum-selling success of the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? being only the most visible sign that the 50-year-old style is enjoying another round of popularity.

If that’s what you believe, though, think again. For the Pikeville, Ky., native whose first experience of live music was a Flatt and Scruggs show at the local drive-in theater, this project is but the latest, if most fully realized, return to her musical roots. In fact, it was barely three years ago that Loveless teamed with the iconic Ralph Stanley on a version of the ancient murder tale “Pretty Polly,” which made its way to the top of the bluegrass charts. In a field suspicious of interlopers, where a musician’s bluegrass résumé is pored over like a thoroughbred’s bloodlines—you could even hear a few grumbles when Dolly Parton won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Female Vocalist award last year—Patty Loveless has been something of a known quantity, a cousin who’s visited just often enough to be a familiar sight. And it seems likely that with Mountain Soul, she’s going to be welcomed henceforth as a member of the immediate family.

“This is something that has been in our heads for a long, long time,” Loveless says of the album—“our heads” rather than “my head” because it’s very much a joint effort with her husband and producer, Emory Gordy Jr. “The Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs are the artists who really influenced both of us as children. It’s almost like Emory and I were meant to be together, and it was meant for him to produce my records. When I got my deal with Sony in 1992 and he was producing my very first record for them, he said, ‘You know, someday I want to do a whole album that’s about what you are and where you come from.’ ”

Gordy’s phrase fits Mountain Soul in more ways than one. For one thing, the music is a faithful reflection of her native home, the coal-mining region of southeastern Kentucky. Loveless’ grandfather was an Old Regular Baptist preacher there, and she recalls hearing—and doing—“a lot of that mountain-type of singing in those churches,” where no instruments were used. Those experiences find reflection not only in the CD’s trio of gospel songs, including one taken straight from the Old Regular Baptist repertoire, but in the singer’s plaintive voice and turns of phrase. Her dad was a coal miner until black lung forced him to leave the mines—he passed away in 1979—and he was a huge fan of Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers. “They were kings to him,” she recalls, “and I wish I was able to share this moment with him.”

Loveless has held onto that bluegrass thread throughout her career. As long ago as 1988, she had recorded a Stanley Brothers song, “I’ll Never Grow Tired of You,” for her Honky Tonk Angel album—as one bluegrass journalist put it at the time, “She not only has an ear for a good song, but knows how to give it the sensitive treatment it deserves”—and while “Pretty Polly” may be her best-known duet with Ralph Stanley, it wasn’t her first. That honor goes to a remake of “I’ll Never Grow Tired” that appeared on a 1992 album of Stanley’s; around the same time, she and Gordy appeared at the festival Stanley still runs near his home in southwestern Virginia.

Most important, at least in terms of how Mountain Soul came to be made, the singer has been including a kind of mini-set of acoustic music in her shows over the past few years; that, she thinks, helped her label get behind the project when she approached them about it. “Honestly, I did this for the fans,” she says. “We would do things like ‘Pretty Polly’ and ‘Soul of Constant Sorrow,’ and I would talk about how proud I was to have a No. 1 song with Ralph Stanley, and about the Stanley Brothers, and people would ask me, ‘Where can we get that song you did acoustically?’ Well, I hadn’t recorded any of it yet, and so I took the idea to the label, and they had seen a performance out in L.A. that I had done where we brought the house down during that segment, so they said, ‘Yeah, maybe you should just do a whole record of this.’ ”

Loveless was able to do those songs as they were meant to be done because she has bluegrass-trained musicians in her band. “I’ve called Alison Krauss many times,” she notes, “and told her I need a good singer and fiddle player; the more instruments they play, the better. And I have found some really wonderful musicians that have come from the school of bluegrass and that generation, kids just full of talent. I think they should be very, very proud of what they have come from and what they have learned.”

Some of those musicians—Tim Hensley, Carmella Ramsey, and Deanie Richardson among them—appear on Mountain Soul, side by side with workhorses of contemporary bluegrass like fiddler Stuart Duncan and Dobro player Rob Ickes, as well as veterans like Gene Wooten and Clarence “Tater” Tate. The mixture of generations on the album, which mirrors the way most bluegrassers learn the ins and outs of the music, was no accident, says the singer. “We wanted a mixture of youth with the elders, and I think it works really well. Watching it go down live and seeing the expressions on their faces—when somebody would hit an amazing note, the older guys would be like a parent who’s proud of his child, but then another time you’d see it the other way around, like a child being so proud of their parent. It was a wonderful thing.”

Like the players, the songs on the album range from new to old. There’s a hard core of bluegrass classics, including Stanley’s “Daniel Prayed,” a duet with Travis Tritt on Reno and Smiley’s “I Know You’re Married,” and a variant of the old Appalachian standby “Shady Grove” (here called “Pretty Little Miss” and fitted out with new lyrics by Loveless and Gordy) that resembles Flatt and Scruggs’ “Going Back to Harlan” version and features Earl Scruggs himself. Other songs come from the country repertoire, like a haunting remake of Kostas’ “(Out of Control) Raging Fire,” originally recorded by Tracy Byrd and Dawn Sears, and Jack Clement’s durable “Just Someone I Used to Know,” as well as Loveless’ own “Sounds of Loneliness” and Gordy’s “Cheap Whiskey,” previously the recipient of undeservedly obscure readings by Martina McBride and bluegrass’ Seldom Scene.

Still, whether they’re old or new, bluegrass or country in origin, the songs on Mountain Soul are all filtered through the singer’s mountain-bred sensibilities, Gordy’s sensitive production, and the musicians’ talents and experiences to create a compelling, almost timeless sound—and that suits Patty Loveless just fine. “When people say traditional...well, what is it?” she asks. “I think traditional music is music that never goes out of style.”

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