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What does it take to be the finest pure country singer of your generation? Consider the life of Patty Loveless: A childhood raised on Kitty Wells, the Stanley Brothers and church hymns. Family struggles in the coal mining towns of Kentucky. The mentorship of Porter Wagoner and eventual husband Emory Gordy Jr. Laser surgery on ravaged vocal cords and flawless instinct for finding songs she, like the country audience, can believe in.
In the '90s, Loveless became a country superstar by drawing on all of her experiences and gifts. Now in her fourth decade of recording, she's fixed her mind and ripe, burnished alto on the music and experience of her Appalachian roots, releasing the bluegrass- and gospel-styled Mountain Soul and (on September 29) Mountain Soul II. She's never sounded finer or purer. From her home outside Atlanta, Georgia, she gave B-Sides some insight into her craft.
B-Sides: What was the first bluegrass song you remember learning?
Patty Loveless: The first one I really learned to sing was probably "How Far Is Heaven?" That was a song Kitty Wells recorded. I was a little girl, maybe five years old, and I'd sing it for my mom. Of course, my dad was working in a coal mine, and I was always waiting for him to come home. The gist is that the little girl is waiting on her father, and her mother has to explain that her daddy has gone to heaven. The song meant a whole lot to me when I was a little girl.
You come from working, mining families.
I do. My grandfathers were coal miners, and I had uncles that were. One uncle was paralyzed in a mine that collapsed — the same one Daddy worked in. Lo and behold, mother had a dream, begged Daddy not to go that day. Pretty much cried. So he did not go into work, and the mines caved in.
Porter Wagoner took you under his wing early on. Can you talk about what he taught you?
I'll never forget that when I was fourteen. When I used to sing, I would just sing. Yelling, dead on. There was no dynamics to my voice. It was very strong, but Porter taught me how to sing with dynamics. He'd say, "You're telling a story here. You need to build up when you really need to make a point." He was a good teacher at that. You know he only had a school education up to the age of twelve. He was a good businessman and learned over time. He was a very smart man.
Do you draw a distinction between singing mountain music and straight-ahead country?
There's not a big difference to me. Even in the contemporary stuff, you can hear the influence of just listening to Appalachian music. I just carried it on through making my own records. I think it really depends on the song itself. The song is the character you become. I've either lived it or been associated with it. It's just like my audience. I can relate. I try to perform it with the feel of the character that it calls for.
About the song "Blue Memories" on Mountain Soul II, you've said that you can "feel good about feeling bad." That's one of the best summations of country music I've ever heard.
Music can be a form of therapy. There are people out there who, in order to feel good, they have to feel bad, before they can get better. It's sort of like they're able to unload all their woes. That old saying, misery loves company, that's true for a lot of people. In this day and time, people need songs, they need movies, something to help them escape or something to unload. To be able to say, "Yeah, that's the way I feel." Even to use me as a vehicle to express it. That's what I always wanted to do, to touch people with songs.