The Burnt Hickory Bunch was on its way to Virginia to play in Ralph Stanley's annual bluegrass festival, working on some new covers of mountain tunes, songs the lead singer had sung with her family forever ago in the Kentucky holler where she was raised. That singer, country star Patty Loveless, was best known for her soulful voice, catchy country-pop ballads and two-step numbers. Her band, though, was about her roots, about Americana, about the Deep South and the music that spoke to the longing and pain she knew well. The instruments were familiar -- banjo, upright bass, fiddle, mandolin, Dobro -- and the songs more so: the Stanley Brothers' gospel song "Daniel Prayed," as well as "The Boys Are Back in Town" and a take on "Man of Constant Sorrow" titled "Soul of Constant Sorrow."
None of this would be a surprise if the scene had occurred during the past year. With the commercial success of the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (six million-plus records sold), it seems every "country" artist who grew up within 40 miles of a hill, holler, coal mine, mountain or creek is rediscovering his or her "roots." Country cred is -- for the time being, at least -- cool.
But Loveless' band worked these bluegrass numbers up in 1992. It wasn't a response to a trend. It was, clichéd as it may seem, a first step in the redevelopment of a star who wasn't satisfied with a successful career that didn't pay homage to her past. If you have a problem believing clichés, you may as well stop reading: Loveless grew up around places called Beaver Bottom and Belcher Holler. She is, after all, a coal miner's daughter.
"After we did all this, we got back -- we had recorded it, of course, and it was rough around the edges, and it was a little difficult to hear at times," Loveless says while on the road from Buffalo, New York. "But while we were listening to it, [husband/producer Emory Gordy Jr.] looked at me and said, 'You know, honey, I would love to do a whole record like this with you someday.' Ten years later, lo and behold, it happened. I guess it was just in the stars. Who knows? Maybe my dad had something to do with it. You know, he's probably watching over me, saying, 'I am going to have you doing this music before your career is through, one way or the other.'"
The result was the best country-music record of 2001, Mountain Soul. Although Soul was released six months after O Brother, it was in the works before the soundtrack made acceptable all things bluegrass and gospel. The album's best-known tracks were upbeat ("The Boys Are Back in Town") or duets -- the two Travis Tritt pairings, "Out of Control Raging Fire" and "I Know You're Married (But I Love You Still)" -- but it's filled with many of those same mountain classics Loveless debuted at Stanley's festival a decade ago. That Loveless is one of the performers on the Down From the Mountain tour is a testament to the power of symmetry over her life -- or, as she says, perhaps the pull of her past really does dictate her future.
Loveless notes, for example, the roster of talent that sprang from the same part of the country she knew growing up, everyone from Ricky Skaggs to the Judds, Loretta Lynn and Dwight Yoakam -- who was also born in Loveless' hometown of Pikeville, Kentucky.
"I think it's the upbringing of that area that grounds you in music, that keeps a hold on you," says Loveless, 45. "For myself, when I was a little child, I would hear my mother going around the house humming, and I think, for the most part, music was a way of releasing any kind of feelings within, because I recall that my family and many more like them, they didn't talk about much -- they really didn't discuss their problems that much.
"Then, too, there was a lot of happiness and joy in the music -- a lot of singing and dancing around my house, and I think that Ricky and Dwight and all of us, you know, I feel from that area, we were just surrounded with it. And a lot of those people moved away to a better life, and I'm sure some of the music went with them. I believe Ricky and I and even Dwight, even though we moved away, we took it with us."
Even so, once Loveless became a countrypolitan music star -- she's a five-time CMA Award winner and has had a slew of hits, among them "You Don't Even Know Who I Am," "I Try to Think About Elvis," "Tear Stained Letter" and "Trouble With the Truth" -- she assumed she'd left much of her Kentucky past behind her. Even during the "new traditionalist" movement of the early and mid-'90s, what sold on country radio was far slicker than most bluegrass music, and banjos were not in high demand in Nashville recording studios.
"I think if somebody was trying to tell me about my future, it would've been kind of hard for me to swallow because of the way that the music was in country, say, for the past ten years," Loveless says. "Well, actually, from '85, or say, '83 up through, say, '95, country music was really just rolling like crazy, and so if they had told me back then, no, it would've been difficult for me to put that all together. Now, as far as breaking away from doing the contemporary country music and going and doing some bluegrass shows, yeah, I would believe that. But doing an entire tour such as this is ... it's pretty overwhelming, pretty unbelievable that we're here today."
The same could be said of the young, prime, ever-so-desirable 18- to 35-year-old demographic that makes up a large portion of the Down From the Mountain audience. "I think a lot of what's going on, I feel that a lot of kids, especially college kids, they always are intrigued and have such interest in music that is very rootsy," Loveless says, "and not just, you know, sort of bluegrass music -- any form of music. They have an interest in it, to know the history of it and how it came to be. It's so good to see that still continue on. Music is history -- it speaks to us about our heritage and where we come from, and I think all of us, whether we're in college or of college age or the age that I am now, myself, that we want to know about the music that brought us here."
This is not to say that Loveless rejects the music she made before Mountain Soul. It was successful for her, and much of it was and is justifiably praised. Loveless knew that a certain level of success wasn't enough. With the commercial accolades had to come a feeling of artistic satisfaction. To crib the lyrics of her Mountain tourmate Emmylou Harris, Loveless went looking for the water from a deeper well:
"This album, this music, I did it because I wanted to. It was true to me.
"I feel that I try to stay true to my own feelings and my past -- even if it's not successful today, somebody can turn around and listen to the music and say, you know, even 50 years from now, and say, 'That was really great stuff,' and I'm hoping that even though I will maybe not be around, that will be something I can leave behind."