I recently spoke to a woman currently incarcerated in an Iowa state prison and asked her how she felt about prison songs. Not the Johnny Cash/David Allen Coe kind about people actually being locked up, but the more metaphorical ones that concern love being like a prison. Did imaginary poetic depictions somehow cheapen the real experience? The woman just laughed and told me to lighten up. Don’t confuse music with reality, she said, that’s a foolish thing to do.
She’s right, of course, but I wish I could play her Patty Loveless’ brutal version of Mike Henderson’s classic country tune “Prisoner’s Tears”. Loveless wrenches every ounce of emotion out of the lyrics where “they don’t see the shackles / but I’m living in chains”. Could being in love ever be as painful as Loveless croons, or is it just a romantic notion? Could being in an actual prison be that bad? The fact that Loveless makes you ask such questions just shows how effective she is at conveying strong feelings.
The somberness of “Prisoner’s Tears” serves as a good example of what Mountain Soul II is all about. Loveless continues the exploration into old time country, bluegrass and Appalachian music that she began on her 2001 Grammy Award-nominated album Mountain Soul. She even employs the same producer, husband Emory Gordy Jr., and backup band: fiddler Deanie Richardson, Dobro player Rob Ickes, singer Jon Randall and harmony vocalists Rebecca Lynn Howard. She also employs a few stellar guests, including vocalists Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Syndi Perry, and Carl Jackson and players Al Perkins, Del McCoury and Ronnie McCoury. The results are sure to please country music purists.
This album reminds the listener of Loveless’ roots as a Kentucky coal miner’s daughter and the cousin of Loretta Lynn. The first track, Harlan Howard’s “Busted”, addresses the heartbreak of trying to eke a living out of coal mining with the sensibility of someone who knows that there’s nothing left to lose. Once you know you’re broke, you realize you can’t go any lower.
But it doesn’t mean you lose your faith. Loveless performs three gospel-type songs here, and they are among the best things on the disc. Especially notable is “Friends in Gloryland”, sung in a cappella harmony with Gill and Howard. You can feel the dust on the church floor tremble in celestial wonder as the unadorned power of the voices merges into the self-penned “(We Are All) Children of Abraham”, which she co-wrote with her husband Gordy Jr. Hallelujah, brothers and sisters.
Not everything here is heavy or spiritual. Loveless offers good-time tunes like “Big Chance” (also co-written with her husband), the therapeutic spite of Paul Kennerley’s “Blue Memories”, the folkie Barbara Keith composition “The Bramble and the Rose”, and other less solemn tunes.
Loveless attained commercial success as a country singer who sang popular, entertaining songs like “I Try Not to Think About Elvis”, “Timber I’m Falling in Love”, “I’m That Kind of Girl”, and “Blame It on Your Heart”. While not everything was about sweetness and light, Loveless understood that to be a country sensation she had to keep things amusing and exuberant. Now that she’s older and presumably more secure, she’s going back to her familial roots and getting more serious about things. While commercial country radio today may find the latest Loveless record boring, you can blame this on country music’s lying, cheating, cold, dead-beating, two-timing, double dealing, mean mistreating, loving heart. Loveless still kicks butt.