For all the ways that today’s Nashville seems a different music city than the past, for all the times a new country act doesn’t seem that related to the roots of the music, country is still a genre with an acute sense of tradition and the importance of those who came before. There are still enough musicians who like to look back, for better or worse. And there’s a wealth of amazing music for them to reach back to, plenty of songs that deserve to be treated as “standards”, and sometimes are. Similar to how a pop singer will go back to Cole Porter or Irving Berlin to convey timeless sophistication, country singers will return to classic tear-and-beer anthems to tap into their timelessness, the universality of the style and emotions. Even 100 years from now, a Patsy Cline or Hank Williams song will cut to the core.
With her latest release, Patty Loveless looks to George Jones, especially, but also Ray Price, Webb Pierce, Dolly Parton, Hank Locklin, Conway Twitty, Dallas Frazier, and others, including the great songwriters of the time, people like Hal Blair or Dickey Lee. The context to the songs on Sleepless Night is classic country, meaning universal heartbreak: lonely nights, cheating spouses, thinking of someone while drinking away your sorrows at a late-night saloon or honkytonk. This is emotional, highly dramatic material, the stuff of soap operas but also real life, presented evocatively and concisely, with no messing around. To wit, the title track, written by wife-husband team Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and sung by the Everly Brothers and others. It starts by stating the cold, hard facts: “Through sleepless nights I cry for you / And wonder who is kissing you”. It’s the stuff of a million works of fiction and countless human lives, but presented starkly and also elegantly, to the twinkling of piano, the yearn of a singer’s voice, and the lonely, comforting echo of steel guitar.
Loveless and producer/husband Emory Gordy Jr. recruited an expert band to get that mood. It includes Pig Robbins, Harold Bradley, Al Perkins—musicians who between them have played with everyone: Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan, George Jones, Ernest Tubb, Willie Nelson, and so many more. They play in classic style while Loveless sings in fine form, her voice rising above to accentuate the emotions in just the right way. She sounds at home, and should. No stranger to this musical terrain, her first single back in the ‘80s was titled “Lonely Days, Lonely Nights”. Her second LP was named after a George Jones song.
Throughout Sleepless Nights she takes these songs straight, letting her voice do the work. These are not reinventions; ignore the notion of “traditional country soul” on the cover, or Loveless’ assertion that she channeled Tina Turner on “Why Baby Why”. You can lop that word “soul” right off the cover if you’d like. The approach here is tasteful, the performances solid to great. Occasionally, it can even seem a bit too serious, not as much fun as it could have been. “Cold Cold Heart” is so slow that its deliberate pace overshadows her strong vocal. “Crazy Arms” removes the unexpected shuffle beat of Ray Price’s hit version, one of its most distinctive traits, though again her singing is great.
In a way, these songs may work better taken one at a time. All together, the safe approach can lull. The only song with much spark is the opener “Why Baby Why”. It’s not even one of her better performances here, but it jumps out from the pack in a certain way just by having a quicker pace.
In the end, you should ignore the impulse to want more variety, or to be surprised by something other than sheer talent, because the album has much to offer on its own terms. Loveless and band offer a spot-on approach to nearly every song. She takes on songs that are very familiar (“He Thinks I Still Care”, “There Stands the Glass”, “Crazy Arms”) and less so, like the Davis Sisters’ “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” or Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner’s “The Pain of Loving You”, and performs them in a respectable and occasionally fantastic manner.
That last song title, “The Pain of Loving You”, might have actually been an even better album title than Sleepless Nights. The pain of loving is exactly what every single one of these songs is about. Why do you make me cry? Why did you go? These are the musical questions asked on Sleepless Nights. They’ve been asked many times before, and they’ll continue to be asked until the end of time.