After the breakthrough of Honky Tonk Angel, it must have been very frustrating for both Patty Loveless and her label that her career seemed to have plateaued. The next two albums, 1990’s On Down The Line and 1991’s Up Against My Heart, did not sell as well, and although her singles were still charting, they were not as consistently successful as those from Honky Tonk Angel. Patty believed she was not a priority for MCA, which had a number of other high-profile female singers including Reba McEntire. She negotiated a release from the label and signed with Epic.
A further delay ensued when as she began recording new material for her Epic debut, it became clear that her vocal cords had suffered serious damage, and if nothing was done, her career could be over. She underwent surgery at the Vanderbilt Voice Center, which saved her career. Indeed, if anything, her voice sounded even better afterwards than it had done at the outset of her career, with greater depth. She returned to the studios with husband Emory Gordy Jr as producer, and the result was a very accomplished mixture of commercial appeal and artistic achievement. Only What I Feel was released in April 1993.
After all this, and the fact that her last MCA single had stalled at #30, it was vital that her first single for Epic re-established her as a star. It certainly did that, because the vibrant ‘Blame It On Your Heart’ (written by Kostas with the legendary Harlan Howard) was Patty’s first #1 since ‘Chains’ hit the top three years earlier. The attitude-filled lyric has Patty showing no sympathy for her ex:
“Blame it on your lyin’, cheatin’, cold dead beatin’, two-timin’, double dealin’, mean mistreatin’, lovin’ heart”
So far, radio had showed more enthusiasm for Patty’s up-tempo material, and sadly the reception for the beautiful ballad ‘Nothin’ But The Wheel’ was tepid, the single only just squeezing into the top 20. It remains one of my personal favorites of Patty’s recordings, and was also nominated by several readers as their favorite in our recent giveaway. The song, written by John Scott Sherrill, paints a very visual picture of a woman driving away from her old life, with nothing to show for it, and Patty’s sad, measured vocal realizes the desolation underpinning the lyric perfectly:
“The only thing I know for sure
Is if you don’t want me anymore
I’m holding on to nothin’ but the wheel”
Patty bounced back into the top 10 with the beaty up-tempo pop-country of ‘You Will’, written by Pam Rose, Mary Ann Kennedy and Randy Sharp. The song’s production has not worn as well as most of Patty’s records, with slightly intrusive backing vocals, but it was definitely radio-friendly. The album contained other tracks which were potential radio fodder in the same style, the brightly assertive poppy ‘How About You’, and my favorite of the up-tempo numbers, ‘All I Need (Is Not To Need You)’, with its semi-hopeful lyric about trying to get over someone.
For the final single, however, Epic bravely selected another ballad, and this time it worked, with the song reaching #3 on Billboard. ‘How Can I Help You Say Goodbye’ is one of Patty Loveless’s classic recordings, with a beautiful vocal performance of a deeply affecting song set to a soaring melody, with a subtle string arrangement backing her. The powerful lyrics use the structure of three increasingly intense stories in three verses, all told in the first person, first showing a young girl faced with losing a best friend due to the friend moving to another house, then that girl as an adult whose marriage has collapsed, seeking comfort from her mother. The song reaches its climax with the mother dying, and still able to help her child come to terms with it:
Time will ease your pain
Life’s about changing
Nothing ever stays the same
How can I help you say goodbye
It’s okay to hurt, its okay to cry
Come let me hold you, and I will try
How can I help you say goodbye
Although Patty did not write the song (it was written by Burton Banks Collins and Karen Taylor-Good), she is quoted as saying that it felt very personal for her, having gone through divorce and the death of a parent. the emotion is unforced, developing naturally through the song.
An almost equally superb song which has often been overlooked is Jim McBride and Jerry Salley’s ‘Love Builds The Bridges (Pride Builds The Walls)’, the most traditional country moment on the record bringing Patty’s high lonesome mountain vocals to the fore, with Alison Krauss singing harmony. The emotionally intense lyric presents a couple whose failing marriage could be saved, if only either one of them were willing to swallow their pride and make the first move:
There’s a lonesome fool waiting
On each end of the line
There’s a measure of blame on both sides
Until each heart is willing
There’s no hope at all
‘Cause love builds the bridges
But pride builds the walls
Also lovely is the Carl Jackson/David Wills song, ‘You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are’, which declares that true love is more desirable than material possessions. ‘Mr Man In The Moon’, written by Wally Wilson and Michael Henderson, is a more contemporary sounding ballad, but again is beautifully sung and with a well-realized lyric, with Patty sharing her troubles with the eponymous man in the moon.
The album’s title comes from the melodic ‘What’s A Broken Heart’, written by George Teren and Don Pfrimmer. Here there is an intriguing counterpoint between lyrics putting heartbreak into perspective and the real sense of sadness evident in the vocal:
“What’s a broken heart
It ain’t no big deal
It’s not what I have
It’s only what I feel…
With faith and time
I know I’ll find
My world is not that dark
It’s temporary pain
I’ll live to love again
So what’s a broken heart?”
Only What I Feel has been certified platinum. If you haven’t heard it, it’s well worth seeking out, and still easy to find.