Pike County’s Patty Loveless
Patty Loveless”When it comes to the soul, you have to think about those people back in the mountains. It’s a hard life and it gives them a special spark that lets them thrive there. They work hard in a world that’s very different — and they’re very proud of that. How can you sing about something worldly, when the only world you know is there? Even as I’ve experienced all these things in my life and my career there’s one thing that’s constant — You never leave there. No matter what, where I come from, where I was born remains “you always have a mountain soul.”
Patty Loveless was born in Pikeville, Kentucky and spent her single digit years in Elkhorn City, Kentucky — a small town near Belcher holler — as the youngest girl in a family of seven. She was the daughter of a coal miner, who’d brought too much of his work home with him, so eventually the family was forced to leave their kin and move to Louisville to seek medical treatment for John Ramey’s black lung disease.
It’s hard to say whether it was life in the mountains where everyone knew everyone or the loneliness of the big unfamiliar city that burnt the sorrow into Patty Loveless’ voice. Yet somewhere in her childhood, the loss and the longing permanently colored the strong alto voice that’s touched people through the Grammy-nominated chart-toppers “How Can I Help You Say Good-Bye” and “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am,” haunted them with the burning “Here I Am” and melancholy “Nothing But The Wheel” and made them smile with the three week #1 “Blame It On Your Heart” and double #1 “You Can Feel Bad (If It Makes You Feel Better).”
But it’s on Mountain Soul, her sixth album for Epic that Loveless returns to her home. Again working with her husband, legendary producer Emory Gordy, Jr., the pair have created a (labor of love) outside the traditional Music Row way of making records — and the result is as chilling, as thrilling as anything the woman TIME proclaimed “sings the truth and serves it up raw” has ever recorded.
Whether it’s Reno and Smiley’s aching “I Know You’re Married,” the tragic love story “Sorrowful Angels,” the vintage “Soul of Constant Sorrow” (rewritten to reflect a female’s point of view) or Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner’s bittersweet “Someone I Used To Know” (Jack Clements) Loveless wears these songs like a favorite dress — and the original material balances a desolate version of Gordy’s “Cheap Whiskey” (originally recorded by Martina McBride) with a musical document of Jesus’ greatest miracle “Lazarus” and the too-wise-too-late “Richest Fool Alive.””When you look at Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, their music lent itself to country, while Bill Monroe was really bluegrass,” the award-winning songstress explains, “and then the Stanley Brothers were more mountain soul. It was their music that I grew up on, and I really wanted to combine these three particular styles for this record. I have always on my past records done a song that reflects this music I was very much influenced by as a child. But this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to do a whole project of this kind.”
And there’s Darrell Scott’s “Never Leave Harlan Alive,” a shivering tale of the mine’s ability to trap you — no matter how great one’s resolve to escape. With its chorus of, “Where the sun comes up about 10 in the morning and the sun goes down about 3 in the day/ And you fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you’re drinking/And you spend your life digging coal from the bottom of your grave”” “I felt like I was connecting to my father’s heart,” Loveless says of this music. I felt like I was singing to him. Music has always been a connection for me — and this record is a direct line to where I’m from, who I am, totally what I’m about.
“For me, this record takes me back to those moments of sharing time with my Dad, and that longing to have an intimacy with him again. In a way, this puts us back in the kitchen again.”
On a reprise of Loveless’ own “Sounds of Loneliness,” originally recorded for her self-titled MCA debut and the song that caught the ear of Porter Wagoner when a shy 14-year old played it for him on her first trip to Nashville — and moved him to introduce the young girl to Dolly Parton, so the award-winning pair began helping the teenager with her music.
“Sounds of Lonliness” was my Dad’s favorite,” she concedes. “I used to sit in the kitchen and sing it for him. I’m not sure if he was lonesome for the mountains like I was”but I think we were pretty alike. So this was a way we could miss that together. And recording it the way we did here gave me back the intimacy of being in the kitchen with my father.”
Patty Ramey’s house was filled with music — the Opry on the radio, her mother humming and singing around the kitchen, her brothers’ and sisters’ records. At six, the family got its first TV, and the country-based programming of the era (“Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs had a show, which Daddy never missed on Saturday, the Wilburn Brothers had a show with Loretta Lynn and various guest artist, also the Porter Wagoner show was always flickering in the background. “When I saw these people doing this, they looked like they were having such a good time,” Loveless remembers of the seeds that were her desire to make music. “There was such a love there, you could tell. So whenever I would see a movie on TV — and you have to realize I was 6 years old, so TV was like bringing the world into our home — me and my cousins would pick out characters we wanted to be. Whatever character was up on the screen, singing and dancing, I’d think, “That’s what I want to be.”
“That was the beauty of music — it could take you away from that moment or it could take you back to a moment that’s gone. Like magic! And that’s a pretty powerful thing to a child”.
Loveless, whose father took her to see Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs perform on top of the concession stand at the Pollyanna Drive-In Theater, I had only seen people making music in church. “It was Old Line,” Loveless recalls. “The preacher would sing a line, then the congregation would repeat it — over and over. And that sound! Those people were singing — and the emotion was coming from their hearts! It came from the deepest part of their souls and there’s nothing quite like it.”
Just as there’s nothing quite like being a kid from the backwoods in the big city. Loveless found herself struggling in school and socially after the family moved to Louisville. Recognizing her struggle, her father bought young Patty a small guitar when she was 11. While it didn’t make the world perfect, it provided an outlet the child truly needed.
“Here I was, a kid that talked funny, and every time I opened my mouth, I was afraid someone would make fun of me,” she confesses. “I was very shy and I had been use to having my brothers and sisters around me. Back home, we all went to the same school together and road the same bus home. First grade through Senior high, we all attended the same school, on the same grounds. And there was this little store across from the school where a lot of the older kids would gather. It contained an area that had a soda fountain and grill, with a counter and six bar stools for sitting, a jukebox and a wooden floor for dancing. I would sneak over during my lunch-break and spend all my lunch money in that jukebox. From hanging out around that little store, I heard a lot of music for a dime. All that changed in Louisville.
“I’d go home and shut the door, listen to my records. I already knew a few chords before my Dad gave me the guitar. I started trying to figure out how to play Dolly and Loretta’s songs. And along the way, I started learning a lot from music. It was a substitute, though I didn’t look at it as a substitute — it was my friend! Music taught me about life and emotions and later it helped me make friends”and it allowed me to speak up, to have a way to define myself.” Not even thirteen yet, her older brother Roger heard her singing and playing around the house one day and asked her to go and sing with him at a local jamboree. “I was scared and excited at the same time. That was my first stage performance and that was the night that started it all. After that I started practicing the guitar more and learning more songs. Then I started getting into writing.”
The young girl with the big dreams found herself and her brother booked to open a big country music show with five different artist at Louisville Gardens. Among the five were the Wilburn Brothers who happened to catch their performance. Doyle Wilburn invited the pair of starry-eyed teens to look him up in Nashville. When they finally made the four hour trip to Music City, Wilburn was out of town. So, they figured that since they were there they might as well try to go by Porter Wagoner’s office. The door was open and Patty put on the original rhinestone cowboy’s guitar and sang “Sounds of Loneliness” in her plaintive little girl/woman mountain wail.
“I really didn’t know what I was doing or looking for — except to be heard,” Loveless admits today. Like so many who come to town and aren’t sure what to do with all that talent, we didn’t know how it worked, but were eager to learn. We just couldn’t believe we were in Porter Wagoner’s office and the Opry/TV star was inviting us to stay over the weekend to attend the taping of his TV show (with Dolly) and attend the Opry. It seemed to be happening so fast. We did end up staying, and I’m so glad we did.”
Loveless eventually signed to the Wilburns’ Surefire Publishing Company. Her brother reasoned “Loretta was gone and since Dolly was with Porter, there was more opportunity for me there.” The grooming took longer than the impatient teen was ready to withstand — she ran away. But the thing about the mountains and the hollers, as Loveless has already acknowledged, is that once its in your veins, it flows forever.
When the new traditionalist boom of the ’80s happened, she was scooped up by tastemaker Tony Brown as one of his original MCA signings (along with Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith) and began to earn critical respect for her true country voice. But even though the mountains tinged her vocals, she didn’t hit her stride until moving to Epic and releasing Only What I Feel. It was during this time that she and Gordy decided to reclaim her past, mostly for the sheer joy of playing the music. “In ’93, we put a little band together to go play Ralph Stanley’s festival: we had a banjo picker, upright bass, mandolin, dobro and fiddle. Emory played guitar that day. We played some of my songs that fit the instrumentation — ‘The Lonely Side of Love,’ ‘Don’t Toss Us Away’ — and some of the older songs I’d always loved.
“We had such a good time, I didn’t want to stop. So I decided to put a segment in my show where I could tell them about my father and the kind of music he’d loved. It was a way to bring the fans into our house back in Kentucky, to give them a sense of where I came from because it’s not something most people will ever see.
“I did it for me, because I love this music so much. But a funny thing happened: when people would be coming through the autograph lines, the acoustic portion of the show was what people were asking about! And you could tell from their questions that they were really listening! They would want to know about specific songs we’d done or more about where the acoustic section came from. “It’s funny: having done it for me and for the show”it turned out that the fans loved it just as much as I did. Over the years, the most asked question I get is ‘when are you going to make an album of just this music?’ It’s hard to know when, but after trying to find the right time, Emory and I just decided, ‘the heck with it’ and started working.”
Beginning in their basement and moving to a barn outside Nashville, Mountain Soul is the essence of the hollers: sad, yet strong, deep, yet joyous, stoic, yet willing to feel the emotional current. Take the frolicsome “The Boys Are Back In Town” or the lovestruck “Pretty Little Miss,” all fingers flying and hearts thumping and know these mountain people know thrills, even as the gospel chestnut “New Coat” puts a warm face on salvation for the people who need it most and Melba Montgomery’s “Raging Fire” captures the torment between want and can’t in a simmer pain and knowing.
“When I record music, I do the songs as if they’re about me. For the person listening, I let them decide if it’s something they could’ve experienced, too, because music can be as true for the listener as it is for the singer” To do that, I have to really dig down in order to get to any kind of emotion. You know, you can’t just sing, you have to feel it.
“Whenever I’m recording or performing a song, I tend to revisit my life — where I’ve been, what I’ve done, people I’ve met. I think about my Mom and my Dad, my brothers and sisters, all the special moments we’ve had. Because, you know, every day was exciting in its own way because I could fantasize and dream. “You had the reality when I was growing up, and you also had the dream. You have to have the dream to be creative”and living in the mountains, there’s a lot of room for dreams to grow.
“So with this music I do, a lot of my past is the place where it all begins. Revisiting the place where I come from is what lets me make music I can feel. And Mountain Soul is a record that goes straight to the feeling — there’s no filtering, no channeling, no adapting. This is the music I grew up on and it’s the music that is who I am at the very core.”