This essay is one in a series celebrating deserving artists or albums not included on NPR Music's list of 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women.
"Break us down by our elements / and you might think He failed," comes the voice, soulful and deep from the holler strong, of Patty Loveless over an acoustic guitar strummed with purposeful, isolated down strokes. The opening salvo from "A Handful of Dust," which starts Loveless' 1994 album When Fallen Angels Fly, continues, "We're not copper for a penny / or even iron for one nail." The lyrics embody how Loveless approaches music: pragmatic, honest, yet seeing a transformative aspect through our better selves.
A mountain girl — and sixteenth cousin of Loretta Lynn — Loveless may be the last coal miner's daughter to hit country radio's mainstream. For her, the temporal is very real; but the value of love – of music and of each other – informs her choice of material. Angels, the second-ever album by a woman to be named the Country Music Association's Album of the Year, speaks to the sacred and simple dirt truth of the human condition.
Growing up in Pikeville, Ky., Patty Ramey learned life from a crack in the land where the sun didn't reach in winter. She came by her sound – and stage name – authentically. Brought to Nashville as a young teen by her brother, she was mentored by Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner and signed to the Wilburn Brothers' publishing company. But then, Loveless got impatient and ran off with a drummer. Slinging hash in diners, her voice broke through the cacophony in rough North Carolina afterhours clubs as her dream faded.
When she finally got another chance at a Nashville career – brought on by her brother bluffing his way into the office of Tony Brown, an MCA A&R honcho, and securing an audition for her — she took nothing about the music she wanted to make for granted. Her plangent, earthy tone and the deep bluegrass vein underscoring her voice offered an authenticity that can't be learned, only lived. She wanted to honor and expand the country music she'd heard Saturday nights from a radio propped in the kitchen window as her mother washed the floors; instead of making the basic radio candy so many women cut and recorded, she opted to keep the hard country edge and earned respectable, but only mid-level, success.
A progressive traditionalist at the time of Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle, Loveless quickly embraced and had hits with women making alternative country like Lucinda Williams ("The Night's Too Long") and Maria McKee's Lone Justice ("Don't Toss Us Away"), plus Matraca Berg ("That Kind of Girl"). Utilizing obscure George Jones hits ("If My Heart Had Windows") and self-penned mountain songs ("Sound of Loneliness"), Loveless country was born. She sang for minimum wage-working women holding it together as life pulled apart at the seams with the urgency and passion of someone with little left to lose and a deep desire to hold on. Those songs also made Loveless real, someone who wanted a life – a characteristic that feels feminist, even if Loveless never claimed that label for herself.
But after releasing five albums, Loveless changed labels, moving to Epic. Unthinkable, given her tenure at MCA, one of Nashville's hottest labels; who leaves the home of Reba McEntire, George Strait, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, Lyle Lovett and The Mavericks? It was risky, but she needed to be even more true to her music — and have a label that could focus more on her. She released Only What I Feel in 1993 on Epic. The tongue-twisting cad-skewering single "Blame It On Your Heart" spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Country, and the album went platinum. With that, the stage was set for 1994's Angels.
On Angels, Loveless owned her foibles (the humorous heartache-distracting "I Try To Think About Elvis"), embraced positive mental attitude (the blues moan "Halfway Down") and owned good lovin's falter (the roadhousey "Old Weakness" later plucked by Jack White for Wanda Jackson). Two of the songs hit No. 1, proving women responded to women who felt their pain in frisky fashion.
More importantly, Loveless blistered pathos. With that Appalachian break in her voice, she eviscerated Tony Arata's tortured "Here I Am," watching the alcoholic who left her drown himself but not his sorrows. The bruise in her alto spoke volumes, exposing a raw truth beyond lyrics.
That same truth guts Gretchen Peters' elegiac "You Don't Even Know Who I Am." Nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Song and Best Female Country Performance, Loveless tracks a woman leaving an empty marriage – and the husband's response to the husk they'd become. Its whispered intimacy builds to a feral wail for what's lost.
Naked emotion and bravura vocals have always marked country's great divas. Tammy Wynette's damning solidarity in "Stand By Your Man," Patsy Cline's regret staining "Crazy," even Dolly Parton's leaving pledge "I Will Always Love You" all share Loveless' inhabiting pain.
But pain alone is not the point. Loveless' songs own the harshness, but reach for better things. Two threadbare misfits find and recognize each other's best in a low-roller Vegas casino in "Ships;" on the leaving-the-wreckage ballad "Over My Shoulder," she owns her mistakes, but moves on, knowing pain subsides. Loveless understands that healing, especially in tough times, offers hope; her extended note tremble embodies the struggle of desiring – and resisting — what hurts us.
Wanting real love and recognizing its cost, the title track transcends. More Western than country, Billy Joe Shaver's song does not wallow, though it confesses a life of temporal pleasure. Redemption rises here. Regal and stately, a damaged soul finds forgiveness in another's acceptance and love. Cautioning her subject against judging prior transgressions, Loveless embraces emancipation from guilt through this love. The gospel of the honkytonk, "Angels" offers respite through a benevolent God who mends broken wings and draws hearts together.
Salvation – like Shaver's song – is rarely simple. Loveless understood. For her, the song, like the life she led and album she made, was a journey through mistakes, rough breaks and ultimately something that wasn't a fairy tale, but felt happily ever after. All you had to do is listen.
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