We wanted to make the record as if people were actually sitting there and watching it all take place. Not as if we were onstage, but like we were in somebody’s living room — we almost were — and people were there and we were entertaining them”, explains Patty Loveless in an interview with No Depression‘s Bill Friskics-Warren. She is describing here the guiding principle behind her most recent, and clearly the most personal album of her career, Mountain Soul, a record of traditionally based folk and country music.
In today’s commercial music climate, it would be easy to dismiss Mountain Soul as a country singer’s attempt to revive a declining career, to catch the wave of the roots-bluegrass revival sweeping music in the wake of the successful O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. After all, Patty Loveless, a two-time Country Music Association “Female Vocalist of the Year” who has been nominated for multiple Grammies, now finds herself relegated to the “Classic Country” category — she has only had two Top ten hits since 1997. But the fact is, Mountain Soul is not a career-revival strategy but a homecoming for Loveless, a native of eastern Kentucky and a descendant of the coal mines. (Her father died of black lung in 1979.) In short, Patty Loveless had a “mountain soul” long before the Cohen Brothers conceived their hillbilly revision of The Odyssey.
John and Naomi Ramey raised daughter Patty right, with Naomi teaching her Bill Monroe, Kitty Wells, and Molly O’Day while John made sure she heard The Stanley Brothers. He never missed an episode on Flatt and Scruggs’s Saturday night television show and also took a young Patty to see them play at the Pollyanna Drive-in. With Mountain Soul, Loveless returns to her childhood. As she explains, “Those are the three kinds of music [country, bluegrass, and hillbilly] I grew up on, and I really wanted to blend those three for this record, but keep the different kinds different” (http://sonynashville.com/PattyLoveless). Simply put, Mountain Soul is the album Loveless has been preparing for all her life — and to see the disc as only a return to hillbilly standards is to miss much of its complexity.
Besides, Loveless’s hillbilly roots have been poking through her Hot Country façade since the beginning of her career, though they became more apparent after 1993 when she and husband/musician/producer Emory Gordy, Jr. put a band together for a Ralph Stanley-hosted bluegrass festival. The response was so positive that Loveless added a bluegrass segment to her live shows, which included classics like “Pretty Polly” and “Some Morning Soon”. It’s also worth noting that her “Pretty Polly” duet with Ralph Stanley from his Clinch Mountain Country disc stayed at #1 for three weeks on the “National Bluegrass Survey” in 1997.
That Mountain Soul is a personal album becomes apparent on a number of levels. First, Loveless has dedicated the disc to her parents, and family pictures supplement the lyrics, placing the songs and the Ramey family story in the context of a larger musical and regional history. Second, its songs are a mix of gospel, country, and hillbilly standards, as well as contemporary tunes that parody their musical heritage; in its composition and themes, Mountain Soul is about stories and music that are historical and contemporary. A third factor that contributes to Mountain Soul‘s intimacy is Loveless’s decision to use her road band/family rather than studio musicians, and, as with any family get-together, a few old friends stop by — in this case Ricky Skaggs, Jon Randall, and Travis Tritt. Moreover, the album was recorded “mostly live”, drum-free, and with few overdubs. As she told Newsweek‘s David Gates, “Here it is, warts and all”. All of this is unheard of in Nashville’s current tidy, Hot Country sound.
Mountain Soul‘s parodic nature is apparent even in the disc’s artwork. On the cover, Loveless’s picture is foregrounded, superimposed upon another graphic of men gathering around an old building. Some are playing music; others appear to be miners on their way home after work. But Loveless’s image doesn’t entirely fit with this glimpse into another time and place, for just as her modern clothes are at odds with those the men wear, so is the shading of her figure different from that of the background. Thus we are reminded that modern technology has placed her in an old picture. There is a schism between the two, the present and the past, that cannot be bridged, just as Loveless’s covers of traditional songs cannot truly recreate that time and place.
Building on the artwork is Loveless’s inclusion of both traditional and contemporary songs, raising questions of “authenticity” as new songs both replicate and build on the rich tradition of country music. It is, after all, impossible for Patty Loveless to do a truly “authentic” album; the times and technology have changed too much. Loveless’s decision to work with a living-room model — even though the songs were recorded in a studio — reflects that compromise.
The living-room motif is apparent from Mountain Soul‘s beginning, the lively “The Boys Are Back in Town”, a song that joyfully tells the girls to get ready because, as Loveless exuberantly puts it, “The ships are in and the sails are down / The boys are back in town”. The song’s rhythm echoes a vaudeville dance tune, here played with acoustic, stringed instruments, though Loveless’ vocal phrasing is too modern, too syncopated for “authenticity” — which is, of course, a point of Mountain Soul. With “The Boys Are Back in Town”, Loveless also links her album to the traditional community dance, held in someone’s home after the furniture and carpet had been picked up. In effect, the listener is invited into the living room.
From there, Mountain Soul welcomes country, hillbilly, and gospel songs, some old, some new, all played with acoustic, stringed instruments that highlight the Kentucky holler in Loveless’s alto voice. Adding to this is the album’s foundation in the fundamental tensions of country music: the honky-tonk’s “Saturday Night” or the church’s “Sunday Morning”.
Loveless’s country music background is apparent in Mountain Soul‘s “Saturday Night” songs. Hank Williams could sing “The Richest Fool Alive”, though here it has an acoustic sound. Much the same is true of “Cheap Whiskey” (by Emory Gordy, Jr.), which uses the traditional waltz form to tell the story of a man who learns the consequences of “trad[ing] her love for a drink”. At times, Loveless’s voice struggles with this slow song — in this case, not a production flaw but, rather, a nod to the living room.
Adding to this are three duets, a bedrock form of classic country. Loveless sings “Someone I Used to Know” with Jon Randall as echoes of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton flit through the mix. She also works with Travis Tritt on two duets, “Out of Control Raging Fire” and “I Know You’re Married (But I Love You Still)”. Tritt’s no George Jones, but he holds his own. These duets point to how such relationships do little to abate the isolation that Saturday night tries so desperately to stave off; the sense that the singers will return to the tragedy of isolation is overwhelming.
Complicating Mountain Soul are the “Sunday Morning” songs that provide a very different answer to the problems posed by Saturday Night. Take, for example, Loveless’s version of Ralph Stanley’s “Daniel Prayed”. A bluegrass ballad and morality tale, the song reminds the listener, “Pray to God and He’ll see us through”. Ricky Skaggs adds mandolin and vocals, during the refrain assuming the role of a mountain preacher who exalts the congregation to a call-and-response. In a similar vein are “Rise Up Lazarus” and “Two Coats”, both gospel songs that assure the faithful they will be rewarded.
But between Saturday Night and Sunday Morning stretches a gray area, a place without easy answers, and it is in this ambiguity that Mountain Soul finds much of its richness. Take, for example, “Pretty Little Miss”, a revision of “Shady Grove”. In this traditional song of a woman’s first heartbreak (and losing her beau to an older sister, no less), Earl Scruggs’s banjo sets a pace that belies the song’s final lines: “Guess I’ll spend my winter months a sad and lonely maiden”. With “Sorrowful Angels”, the main character does live her life as a sad and lonely maiden in a story so tragic that the angels weep for her.
A highlight is Loveless’s revision of “Man of Constant Sorrow”. It’s impossible not to hear her version against the infectiously upbeat, hit version of the Soggy Bottom Boys from O Brother, but Loveless’s “Soul of Constant Sorrow” is more in keeping with the song’s mountain-ballad roots. There’s no playful banjo here, just a slow quest that tests endurance. Ricky Skaggs adds mandolin and backing vocals to this tale of isolated wandering that can only end with death.
Two tracks merit particular attention. The first is “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”. Darrell Scott’s 1995 song sounds as if it were written 100 years ago with its mountain-ballad form, prophecies of death, and dark sense of futility. This account of the singer’s grandfather, who attempts to escape the mines but is ultimately driven back to them by economic desperation, is haunted by vivid characters and descriptive language (“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”). Loveless’s version, with its acoustic opening, is perfect and raises a central issue: Here is Scott, writing an old-timey ballad about a great, great-grandfather, a man time had obliterated from family history. It speaks to the ways in which the present revisits and revises the past, extending the tradition.
All of these pieces — past and present, light and dark, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, personal and public, artistic and commercial — come together in the disc’s final track, “Sounds of Loneliness”, a song written by a 14-year-old Patty Ramey (now Loveless) long before she was a professional singer. Instead, she was a talented, isolated teenager struggling to cope with her family’s move from Pikeville to Louisville. The song has tremendous personal value for Loveless: It was her father’s favorite; she used it when auditioning for Porter Wagoner; and it originally appeared on her 1987 debut album.
Important paradoxes lie at the heart of the “Sounds of Loneliness”. The first is the song’s sound, its Celtic heritage that uses a fiddle to create the drone of bagpipes (and points to Scotland’s central contribution to Appalachian culture) and an almost rock beat; the high-lonesome harmony singing; the acoustic instruments inherent to folk music. One of the sounds of loneliness, then, is the many voices and sounds from which American music has descended. The second paradox is the notion that loneliness would have a “sound”. The general belief is that loneliness is the result of silence, of isolation. But Loveless moves beyond that as she sings of being unable to endure the sounds of her tears and her heart. She finishes the song — indeed the album — by singing, “Hear the sounds of loneliness / Hear the sounds all around / Since you’ve gone and left me alone / I’ll just hear these sounds from now on”. It is a chilling final thought.
Although, lyrically, “Sounds of Loneliness” is about isolation, in the context of this personal album and, indeed, the music of the song itself, it moves beyond that to show the universality of music and its power to overcome isolation. That is, the music allows Loveless to articulate her loneliness just as it enables the listener to hear her message — a multifaceted one of family, cultural, and regional history, beautifully told in Mountain Soul.
In the end, music is the living room.