Who would have thought that recording an album of classic country tunes from a bygone era would be the most radical act a country artist could commit? When it's 2008 and contemporary country sounds are wound so deep in an identity crisis that threatens to exhaust every bit of its vitality and creativity. Since much of contemporary country borrows so heavily from the clichéd production standards -- not to mention compositional styles -- of '70s and '80s rock, both north and south of the Mason Dixon line, it takes a talent as big as Patty Loveless' to remind the punters where the music came from and what qualities make it timeless and immeasurably valuable.
As writer Holly Gleason's fine liner essay attests, Loveless has long been one of country music's gentry artists (a genuine lineage holder to the tradition). Having begun her professional career as a songwriter at the age of 14, at 51 she's a seasoned veteran with an authentic story -- raised in a holler by a coal-mining father, she began singing with her brother at the age of 12. These 14 songs, chosen from hundreds and produced by her celebrated husband, Emory Gordy, Jr., are all from the canon and undisputed classics of the repertoire. They were recorded with genuine attraction and enthusiasm by an artist whose voice signifies the very best of the tradition's qualities -- without falling into the museum-piece trap. From Felice & Boudleaux Bryant's title track (sung with Vince Gill), Ralph Mooney's "Crazy Arms," that scored big for Ray Price, and "Why Baby Why," a tune George Jones co-wrote (his presence is invoked either as a songwriter or as an inspiration no less than four times here), and Dickey Lee's "He Thinks I Still Care," (a hit for Jones who replaced the pronoun), Loveless takes each of these cuts deep into the well of her heart and let's them rip. Gordy's production understands that the object of accompaniment is to be true to the song and drenches these tunes in pedal steel, hushed, shuffling drums, fiddles, electric guitars, and Hargus "Pig" Robbins' piano. He showers them in emotion and Loveless simply needs to open her mouth to tell the story behind the words to get it across to the listener, where it resonates deeply. While a song like "There Stands the Glass" has been recorded many times, this is the only version that comes close to the Webb Pierce hit. Jedd Hughes makes an appearance on "That's All It Took" to reclaim this song from the shelves. It's less dramatic than the Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris version of the tune, but it's also more nakedly emotional. Penny Jay Moyer's classic cheating song"Don't Let Me Cross Over," is delivered without irony or humor; in the grain of Loveless' voice, the song becomes true and urgent entreaty. Her reading of Hal Blair's "Please Help Me I'm Falling" erases all distance between performer and listener. This set closes with Hank Williams, Sr.'s "Cold, Cold Heart." Loveless treats these songs without even a trace of nostalgia, but as the living embodiment of stories that not only transfer emotion, but reveal the hidden truths of love, life, sadness, grief, and wisdom gained by experience. If ever we needed a record of country music classics it's now, but to have them delivered by one of the greatest talents the music ever produced -- a singer still very much in her prime -- is a gift beyond measure.