Country radio’s love affair with Patty Loveless began winding down around 1997, with the release of the single “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me”. The record met with resistance by some radio program directors, who requested the release of an alternate version, without the harmony vocals provided by George Jones. Loveless refused to remix the record; it stalled at #14 and she never again had another Top 10 hit. Her commercial appeal may have waned, but freed from the constraints and pressures imposed by radio, Loveless has blossomed as an artist and released some of the best music of her career. In 2001, she released a critically acclaimed bluegrass album, and this week, Mountain Soul II, the long awaited sequel, finally hits store shelves.
Though mostly acoustic, the subtle use of some non-bluegrass instrumentation — electric guitar, pump organ, and pedal steel guitar — prevent Mountain Soul II from qualifying as a true bluegrass album, and Loveless and her label, Saguaro Road Records, have been careful not to refer to it as such. In press releases, they describe it as Appalachian, bluegrass, and country combined. Regardless of the label, it is a worthy successor to Mountain Soul, and unlike many sequels, it holds its own against the original.
Many of the players from the original Mountain Soul — Jon Randall, Rebecca Lynn Howard, and of course, Loveless’ producer and husband Emory Gordy, Jr. — are back on board this time around. Loveless is also joined by special guests Del and Ronnie McCoury, Vince Gill, and Emmylou Harris.
The opening track and lead single for the album is a cover of the Harlan Howard classic “Busted”. Recorded many times in the past by artists such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and John Conlee, Loveless’ version restores Howard’s original lyrics, which contain references to coal mining, rather than cotton farming, referred to in the other recorded versions. The lyrics were originally changed at the request of Johnny Cash, but coal mining is a better fit with the acoustic arrangement and bluegrass harmonies provided by the McCourys. Even better are the vocal performances that the McCourys contribute to the old standby “Working On A Building”, which is the most purely bluegrass song on the album.
Other covers on the album include a version of Emmylou Harris’ “Fool’s Thin Air”, written by Rodney Crowell and Susanna Clark, George Jones’ “When The Last Curtain Falls”, and “Diamond In My Crown”, which closes the album. “Diamond” is sparsely produced; Loveless’ only accompaniment is a pump organ and harmony vocals provided by the original artist Emmylou Harris. The result is nothing short of stunning and, along with the traditional standard “The Bramble and the Rose” and the Jon Randall-penned “You Burned The Bridge” , it is one of the highlights of the album.
The “soul” in Mountain Soul II is in no short supply. In addition to the aforementioned “Working On A Building” are the spirituals “Friends In Gloryland” and “(We Are All) Children of Abraham”. On the former, which is dedicated to the departed members of Loveless’ and Gordy’s families, beautiful harmony vocals are provided by Vince Gill and Rebecca Lynn Howard in an a cappella performance. However, “Abraham”, written by Loveless and Gordy, doesn’t fare as well. In another a cappella performance, Loveless is joined this time by the Burnt Hickory Primitive Baptist Congregation. It is the type of song one would expect to hear at an old-time revival meeting, but it is a bit awkwardly constructed and Loveless’ vocal sounds forced. It’s the one track on the album that doesn’t quite succeed and repeated listenings have not changed my opinion.
Patty also took this opportunity to revisit some songs from her back catalog. Initially, I was a bit disheartened to learn that valuable album space was being allotted to five old songs but since the album contains a generous fifteen tracks, I quickly got over my disappointment. The updated songs are “A Handful Of Dust” from 1994’s When Fallen Angels Fly, “Half Over You” from Loveless’ 1987 eponymous debut album, and “Blue Memories” and “Feelings Of Love”, both from the 1990 album On Down The Line. Of these re-recordings, “Blue Memories” is the most radically changed. The tempo is quicker, with tight harmonies from Gill and Howard, which gives the tune a more bluegrass-y feel. “Half Over You” benefits the most from the reinterpretation, as it clearly demonstrates how much Loveless has improved as a vocalist and an interpreter since her debut over 20 years ago. In addition to these re-recordings, we are also treated to a reprise of “Big Chance”, another Loveless-Gordy composition which appeared on Dreamin’ My Dreams, Patty’s swan song for Epic. This is the original track, under license from Sony. It is a follow-up to “Pretty Little Miss”, a track from the first Mountain Soul, and as such, ties this project in nicely with the original volume.
Mountain Soul II is a triumph of artistry over the crass commercialism of modern-day Nashville. While it won’t generate any big radio hits or earn platinum certification, it may very well earn a Grammy nomination. And even if it doesn’t, it is without a doubt one of the best releases among 2009’s slim pickings and is destined to be remembered long after most of today’s chart-toppers have faded from our memories.