My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Mountain Soul II’

mountainsoul2Country 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.

Grade: A+

12 responses to “Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Mountain Soul II’

  1. Occasional Hope September 29, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    It is very good, although I don’t like it as much as Sleepless Nights. My favourite track is You Burned The Bridge.

    Something that struck me was that her Kentucky accent seems to be much stronger on this than on any of her previous recordings; I don’t know if that was deliberate?

    • Steve from Boston September 30, 2009 at 9:33 am

      I think it was deliberate, especially on Busted, where it fits the raw and rustic nature of the song perfectly.
      And although it may seem like an exageration or an affectation, that extreme twang falls in the natural range of her native drawl.

  2. Leeann Ward September 29, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    Great review. I pretty much agree on all points, but I’d probably grade it half a grade less, because I don’t like it as much as Mountain Soul (which would be an A grade for me) and I think the tempo could be more balanced (too many slow songs). I think this one is below Mountain Soul and Sleepless Nights for me, but still a great project that outshines much of what I’ve heard this year.

  3. highwayman3 September 29, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    I agree with Leeann’s points the most on this one. The best part about Mountian Soul 1 was the uptempo ditty’s, more toe tapping would have been better to my ears, still great though.

  4. Chris September 29, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    Honestly, I like this album better than Mountain Soul- they both have killer tracks though like “Harlan” or “Diamond and the Crown”. Patty Loveless rocks my socks.

    • Razor X September 29, 2009 at 11:53 pm

      I think this one is a little “rootsier” (is that a word??) than the original. The first Mountain Soul made some modest attempts to get some radio airplay — with the Travis Tritt duet “Out of Control Raging Fire” and “Just Someone I Used To Know”. The latter wasn’t a single, but it’s not a bluegrass song by any stretch of the imagination. This time around they realized that there was no chance of support from radio so there was no need to include more mainstream songs on this disc.

      Both are great albums, however. Patty Loveless has about as strong a catalog as anyone in country music, so it is extremely difficult to say which of her albums are the best. With the exception of Strong Heart which is mediocre, they are all great. Country music would be a lot better off if it had more artists like Patty Loveless and more songs like the ones she sings.

  5. Leeann Ward September 30, 2009 at 12:46 am

    I think she and Dwight have the most consistently good catologs in my collection, though I have to give Dwight my edge.

  6. Steve from Boston September 30, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Great review Razor, but for the reasons Leeann and others have cited, I’d only give it an “A” ;)…We are on the same page her though, absolutely.

    I think this album is a great as the original. Both have slight flaws, but as Chris points out, both have extreme high points, like Harlan and Diamond In My Crown,. And I think those heights redeem any shortcomings and elevate both albums into grade A status.

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