It’s impossible to deny that country music has changed drastically since the days of Hank Williams and George Jones. But not every successful country artist plows ahead into the new trends without acknowledging the giants whose shoulders they stand on. As part of the movement known as neotraditional country, singer Patty Loveless manages to move forward and cherish the past at the same time. She’s also one of the best-selling female performers in country music history. Born Patty Ramey in 1957, she certainly has music in her Kentucky blood: Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle are her cousins. Her brother and sister were musicians, too, and it was her brother Roger who first talked Loveless into singing in public when she was 12. Soon they headed to Nashville, and she got her break at the Grand Ole Opry in 1973, as a replacement when Jean Shepard didn’t show up. While still a teen, Loveless regularly performed with Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, and Doyle Wilburn. She married Wilburn’s drummer, Terry Lovelace, in 1976, but changed the spelling of her last name because of Linda Lovelace the adult film star. The couple moved to North Carolina and played rock shows at clubs. When their 10-year marriage came to an end, Loveless decided to get back into country music and return to Nashville. Her decision led to a wildly successful career, fueled by the combination of rock and classic country elements in her music. Starting in 1986, she’s made 16 studio albums and had five number-one hit singles. She’s not a songwriter, but MCA Records had that in mind when they signed her. The executives there collected and commissioned plenty of songs for her. Patty Loveless was her debut in 1987. Almost half of the tracks were released as singles, and while none was a big hit, they flooded the radio waves and got her name and voice out there. “Blue Is Not a Word” was composed by country and Cajun musician Jo-El Sonnier; it had already been recorded by George Strait two years before.
Loveless released two albums in 1988. The second of them, Honky Tonk Angel, began a prolific and lucrative collaboration between her and the songwriter Kostas, the pen name of Greek-American hitmaker Kostas Lazarides. He also created chart-toppers for Strait, Dwight Yoakam, and others. Kostas contributed three songs to Honky Tonk Angel, including “Timber, I’m Falling in Love,” Loveless’ first No. 1 single. Besides tapping into commercially mainstream classic country sounds, Loveless was not afraid to sing in arrangements that were unapologetically bluegrass. “I Won’t Gamble with Your Love” is a good example, with both the acoustic instrumentation and her vocal ornaments sticking to the traditional style.
Loveless and Kostas kept making top-ten hits, including “On Down the Line” in 1990. The following year’s Up Against My Heart still featured songs by Kostas, but its biggest single was “Hurt Me Bad (In a Real Good Way),” by fellow country star Deborah Allen. Maybe the best song choice on this album is the closer, Lyle Lovett’s “God Will.” The melody takes advantage of Loveless’ strong, clear voice; she never overuses vibrato, and her intonation is always precise. The dobro player is Nashville session stalwart Jerry Douglas.
In 1992, Loveless left MCA for Epic Records, and she started there with a bang. Only What I Feel produced four top-20 hits, including the No. 1 “Blame It on Your Heart.” But Loveless was enjoying more than popular success. Her next album, When Fallen Angels Fly (1994), won the Country Music Awards Album of the Year award. This was only the third time a woman had won that prize. While the album’s bestseller was the humorous rockabilly “I Try to Think about Elvis,” there’s a range of styles here. “Ships” is an old-fashioned country story song that dives deep into the characters of a guy named Eddie, a woman named Lily, and their unexpected romance.
As is true of most successful country singers, Loveless’ meal ticket was her ability to sell a love song, whether happy or sad. There are some on both ends of the emotional spectrum on 1997’s Long Stretch of Lonesome. But in country music, sentimental torch songs are the real stock in trade. Therefore, it’s fun to hear Loveless step slightly out of her comfort zone and do a song with a different grit and energy (don’t worry, it’s still about love). The contemporary openness of “That’s Exactly What I Mean” reflects the style of its two successful Nashville songwriters, Kim Richey and Tia Sillers.
In 2001, Loveless embarked on a project concentrating on the music of her youth in Kentucky. Mountain Soul ended up being a pair of albums, with the second coming out in 2009, her last solo studio recording. Loveless takes the “mountain” part of the album’s title seriously, giving the songs a traditional sound, eschewing the slickness of pop-based country. Needless to say, she has amassed a top-notch crew of musicians who really know the style she’s after. And her singing is gorgeously elemental. Listen to the high-lonesome ornaments in “The Richest Fool Alive.”
For her fifteenth album, Sleepless Nights (2008), Loveless delved into the past of country music, covering songs made famous by a pantheon of greats. There’s the Conway Twitty hit, “Next in Line,” the Hank Williams classic “Cold, Cold Heart,” and “The Pain of Loving You,” by Wagoner and Parton. While the track “Don’t Let Me Cross Over” clearly borrows from the mountain gospel tradition, the lyrics are about trying to stay strong in the face of romantic temptation. It was a No. 1 hit in 1962 for the husband-and-wife country duo Carl Butler and Pearl. “Don’t Let Me Cross Over” was written by another important female songwriter, Decca Records house composer Penny Jay, who supplied Nashville with material for a couple of decades.
Although Loveless hasn’t made a new album in 13 years and has stopped touring, she still keeps her hand in with annual appearances at the Grand Ole Opry.
This gifted artist has more than paid her dues and deserves a long, pleasant rest on her laurels.