by Roy Kasten
In this week's RFT, freelancer Roy Kasten interviewed Patty Loveless about her career and forthcoming album, Mountain Soul II, the follow up to her first "mountain music" album, Mountain Soul. The finest singer of the new traditionalist movement, Loveless appears tonight at the Sheldon with a largely acoustic band (her first tour since the Down From the Mountain revues that won't feature drums). Get to know Loveless with the extended interview after the jump.
Roy Kasten: You're at home in Georgia? Whereabouts?
Patty Loveless: I live on the Northwest side of Atlanta. I never have to go through Atlanta to get to my home place, and that I'm thankful for. It's between Cartersville and Dallas, Georgia. We live out in a wooded area by some wild life management. It's wonderful to escape to it and get away. At first I wasn't sure I'd like it too good, moving from Nashville. I was used to living so close to family and friends. Emory [Gordy Jr.]'s family is from here, but I have family in Ohio and Illinois and Kentucky.
I wanted to ask you about "bluegrass." Now I know some people say if it doesn't have the Scruggs-style banjo, it ain't bluegrass, but...
You're kinda close to it. I call it a mixture of at least three musics: Appalachian, a little bit of bluegrass, and country.
What were Pikeville and Elkhorn City, Kentucky like growing up?
It was very laid back. It's the same way today. Technology has come along, but it moves very slowly there. Our form of entertainment was music. Neighbors would come by, and especially in church, I'd get to hear my aunts and my mother sing. We didn't have a TV in our house till I was six. I have a brother who is five years younger than me, but I was the youngest girl. I just recall that in the houses where we lived, there was no in-door plumbing. Everything started to click at the age of six. We finally moved into a house that had a bathroom, a tub and a lavatory. I remember that we'd sometimes go to the movies, and my brothers and sisters, when they'd go on dates, either myself or my older brother would go with as chaperones for mom and daddy. I enjoyed going to the drive-in theatre. The first time I ever saw someone perform live, rather than over the radio or on TV, was Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. They were playing on top of the concession stand during intermission.
There's so much that I look back on, that probably when I was in my twenties, I took for granted. But now I have more respect for it. Now I think kids might have too much to do. There's so much stress, kids taking stuff for depression. You know, I don't recall going to a doctor until I was seven. As a kid, you didn't think about all that. Back there, it was simple life. You had to make up your own games. I'd go off to the hills, and mama was glued to the house taking care of my baby brother, but here I'd go off in the woods and go hiking. I still love doing that today. I know there were snakes, just as there are today. But there was one spot on the mountain, where I'd just go and sit, a very high peak. I'd look down and see how small everything was. This must be what it's like for God to look down. We're nothing but a speck, you know? When I got to go to New York for the first time, in 1981, I was able to look off those buildings and look down, and that whole experience took me back to that mountain.
Did you always picture leaving that life, escaping it?
I did miss it when we moved away. There were opportunities when I'd get to go into bigger cities like Louisville or Columbus, and visit with relatives and their children. I had opportunities to get out for a few weeks at a time in the summer. For the most part, for me, I always created imaginary friends. I tended to be kind of a loner, even though I had a big family. Keep in mind that I was the baby girl. That left me stuck in the middle. All my older brothers and sisters had gone off. Music was a way for me to entertain myself, to listen to songs and experience the world through songs. It wasn't really until the age of 21 that I was able to get out and experience more.
You've always had a knack for finding the right songs, the songs that you can make into Patty Loveless songs. How does that happen?
Probably a lot of that comes from all those years of listening to other people's songs, to re-create them and put my own into the songs. Even with Otis Redding and Percy Sledge or Loretta Lynn or Patsy Cline or Molly O'Day or the Stanley Brothers or Linda Ronstadt. When I came into my own, doing my own records, I used all those influences. Sometimes I'll listen to a song, and go, Hmmm, I hear a little Loretta Lynn, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. Another one I'll think, that sounds like Ralph Stanley and Linda Ronstadt. It's bizarre. I can, maybe no one else can, but I can hear their influence on me. And Stevie Wonder. There are some breathy things I do, and it probably comes from listening to Stevie Wonder. You learn something about yourself all the time. With each new project, you say, that's interesting. I didn't know I could do that.
And choosing the material?
I've taken some songs on, like "Busted," where the lyric content was male-oriented, and about a different subject, about picking cotton, but the original lyrics, which Harlan Howard shared with my husband, were about coal mining. The reason he changed it is that Johnny Cash called up Harlan and said, "It's a great song. But I don't know anything about coal mines." Harlan asked, "What do you know about?" And Johnny said, "Cotton." Harlan said, OK, and so that's the way it's been recorded in the past. My version goes back to the original lyrics.
Do you think, looking back, that the relative lack of commercial success of records like Strong Heart and even Long Stretch of Lonesome was a good thing? That it gave you the chance, maybe the freedom, to record Mountain Soul?
After Strong Heart was recorded, prior to Mountain Soul being made, Emory and myself and four other musicians had gone by request to do the Stanley Brothers Festival. Ralph had invited us. I just knew we couldn't take an electric show there. We took some members from my original band, some who were from here in Georgia. We rehearsed on the bus, on the way to the venue, on a snake road. I thought my bus driver was gonna die! We did "Daniel Prayed," "Going Up Caney," a thing called "Soul of Constant Sorrow," and mixed it up with some things I'd done in the past, "If My Heart Had Windows," mixing it up with the country kind of things.
We did 45 minutes, maybe a little longer. We recorded it, listened back and Emory said, "I would love to do a record of this some day." So it was always in the planning. That was maybe 1994. After that I started merging those songs into my shows. I'd break the band down and bring them closer to me, around one mic, and do what they did back then. We did "Daniel Prayed" and "Pretty Polly," that Ralph Stanley had a big record on. We did bluegrass and Appalachian songs. My audience went nuts. When we'd get to that part of the show they'd be standing on their heads! There was something happening. People would come up after the show and ask where they could get those recordings, and I'd have to tell them they weren't recorded. My label saw a show at the Greek Theatre in L.A., saw the response of the audience, so we discussed it and because of fans' demand that's when the first Mountain Soul was born.
The first time I ever truly noticed how powerful a performance can be was when my sister was performing for a bunch of guys at Fort Knox. They were mesmerized by her. They were hanging on every word. She was singing Patsy Cline, with the band on the base, but even as a young girl, I noticed their faces and knew that was what I wanted to do, to touch people. It's not about the looks, it's about the feel. Sure, she was an attractive girl, but it was a different kind of look in their eyes. She was touching their inner soul. That's what I wanted to do.
On this album, you went back to a number of songs that you had considered or demoed years ago, but didn't record. I'm going to apply for a Freedom of Information Act to get all those demos.
The fact is, with those old demos, they were songs that were being pitched to me through Emory. Those cassettes built up over years. It's unbelievable what you can collect over twenty years. In looking for songs for the new album, there were some more contemporary lyrical songs. In particular, there was an album Emory produced for Jon Randall back in '93 or '94, and two of the songs on that album I really loved were "Prisoner's Tears" and "You Burned the Bridge." Jon wrote that one, and he ended up singing on both of them [on the new album]. Those songs have a contemporary country possibility for today. "Bramble and the Rose" was pitched to me for my first record, and it wasn't quite right for me. Emory played me the original demo by the writer Barbara Keith. I didn't know it had been recorded by bluegrass artists. But I went back and did some research. That's actually the first folk song I've recorded. But I still think that Linda Ronstadt could have taken that song and made it a country classic. When I think about "Prisoners Tears" and "You Burned the Bridge," the melody and arrangement and lyrics, they feel a little more contemporary, compared to the songs that were on the first Mountain Soul record.
The first time I've done an a cappella type thing is on this album. "Friends in Gloryland" with Vince Gill and Rebecca Lynn Howard. And the song "We're All Children of Abraham," that one I wrote with Emory. It stems from my upbringing and experience with funerals. My grandfather was a Baptist preacher, and going into old Primitive Baptist churches, where the preacher would line up the song and the congregation would sing, and it was a call and repeat. I think that's getting more and more lost. That's what we tried to do with those songs. The one person who keeps that alive is Ralph Stanley. He does it like nobody else. He's absolutely been touched by that.
You've never been known as a songwriter, but the two songs on this new record are striking.
I've always been shy about my songwriting.
Do you have a shoebox full of songs hidden away?
I do. Maybe one of these days those songs will be completed and you might hear them through others. I'd love for other people to record those songs.
Is there a hesitancy on your part to sing them?
When I do a song like "A Handful of Dust," that Tony Arata wrote, I think, man, I'd like to write a song like that. Or a song of his I've recorded, "Here I Am," it's a classic for me. He also wrote "The Dance." Tony has this contact with the higher power; he makes a connection through words. Some of the words are so spiritual, they touch your heart and soul. And I go, Hmmm, that's the kind of writer I'd like to be. He's one of my favorites in Nashville.
Does it bother you that a record like Mountain Soul, or the album from last year, Sleepless Nights, and now Mountain Soul II, knowing that they probably won't get played on country radio?
I've had my time on radio. They still play the old, classic Patty Loveless. That's fine with me. I've accepted that, yes, I'm getting older. I've developed many, many bottles of vintage music. But I have to continue to create and experience things in my life. Radio has to make room for other artists, the youth of today. You know when I look back at Loretta Lynn and George Jones and Merle Haggard, some of those artists I covered on Sleepless Nights, some of them were gone, and some were still with us, but they couldn't get air play when Vince Gill and I first came along. I think we're fortunate that we have music that still lives on. I'd love for the new music to be heard, but with technology, the Internet, there's a good chance it will still be heard.