Patty Loveless,
Mountain Soul II
(Saguaro Road, 2009)

A leading reference work on country music characterizes Patty Loveless as "very likely country's most admired female singer of the 1990s for her consistently sensitive choice of songs and for her skillful balance of modern and traditional country vocal stylings." As the first decade of the 21st century nears its end, Loveless's days as a hit-maker are in the fading past, hers the usual fate in an industry where commerce trumps art: too old and too country, as the suits' refrain goes.

Not that old, at least from where I stand. She's 52, and she still looks pretty good. More important, she remains a major artist in every way except the one that generates major money. Mountain Soul II showcases all of Loveless's many strengths and picks up where Mountain Soul (Epic, 2001) left off, with the sounds of acoustic country, bluegrass, gospel and her native Kentucky. Soul deservedly garnered much praise, but as doesn't always happen with sequels, Soul II is even a little better, perhaps simply because Loveless continues to work conscientiously at her craft.

If you haven't heard Loveless, think of a less ethereal, more grounded Emmylou Harris -- in other words a rooted artist with brains and taste to spare. Not to mention a spectacular singing voice.

It opens with a rewritten version of the late Harlan Howard's "Busted," hits in the 1960s for Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. Loveless takes the folksong-like narrative into the mining region where she grew up, and she practically steals the song from the just-mentioned giants. Hers, in any event, is surely the equal of theirs in passion and originality, and the oldtime-stringband arrangement gives this tale of hard times a unique aura of authenticity.

The deepest excavation into mountain soil, though, comes in the three-song gospel medley that begins in a bluegrass arrangement, with a searing duet with Del McCoury, of the traditional "Working on a Building," then moves into unaccompanied mountain harmonies (with Vince Gill and Rebecca Howard) on the antique hymn "Friends in Gloryland," and concludes with the new yet primeval-feeling "(We Are All) Children of Abraham," where the Burnt Hickory Primitive Baptist Congregation backs Loveless. Loveless and husband/producer Emory Gordy Jr. co-wrote the last, which is among other things a call -- if one that does not draw heavy-handed attention to itself -- for spiritual communion with Muslims and Jews.

Loveless/Gordy's playful "Big Chance" could easily pass as a traditional song from the Kentucky hills and hollers. Aside from the more folkish material, there is a wealth of great pure country songs, attesting again to the keenness of Loveless's ear. The two that stood out the first time I heard them are "Fools' Thin Air" (Susanna Clark, Rodney Crowell) and the wrenching "Prisoner's Tears" (Mike Henderson, Mark Irwin, Wally Wilson), Loveless's forceful reading of which will definitely mess with you. On hearing it, I felt almost as disconcerted as I did on my first exposure to Merle Haggard's comparably unsparing "Sing Me Back Home." That's true even when I put aside the consideration that Loveless's prison, unlike its counterpart in Haggard's ballad, is only symbolic.

Let's just leave it at, this being a family publication, wow.

review by
Jerome Clark

24 October 2009

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