After 2000’s lackluster Strong Heart failed to chart any significant or memorable hits for Patty Loveless, she took a different approach with the material for her next record. But these songs were really nothing new to Loveless, who had been including one or two of these sort of rootsy chestnuts on each of her mainstream albums for the past decade.
She’d also long been including them in her live shows, recalling at the time, “I was doing it during my shows, about three, four songs. The people would come up and ask, ‘where can we get this kind of music?… that song that you did?’, and I would say like, ‘I haven’t recorded it yet..’ So I said, well, this is something I want to do. And, for those folks that are going to be listening, or looking out for some of the more acoustic type of mountain blues, or mountain soul.. is what I’m calling it Mountain Soul.”
So for her sixth album for the Epic label, and her eleventh overall, Patty Loveless returned to her Appalachian roots and the acoustic instrumentals and harmonies associated with bluegrass music. The resulting album, recorded in Lepier’s Fork, Tennessee, featured an all-star cast of guests, contributing vocals and instrumentals. Though it peaked at #19 on the Country Albums chart, it did go to #5 on the Bluegrass Albums chart. Additionally, Mountain Soul made many critics year-end lists in 2001 as the best album of the year, and marked the beginning of a series of traditional and classic-sounding albums from Patty Loveless spanning this decade.
The disc leads off with ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’, which was also the lead-single, though it failed to chart. It’s a rousing number, with a plucky banjo mixed in with some tap-your-toes fiddling from Stuart Duncan. This is an arrangement that frames many of the tracks on Mountain Soul.
A second single featured Travis Tritt. The haunting tune, written by Kostas and Melba Montgomery is a tale of two lovers who are rekindling the fires of their relationship, but also bringing back the heartache that came with it:
Pain has no memory when you burn with desire
The flames grow higher and higher
Till we’ve reached an out of control ragin’ fire
Despite a major push from the superb music video being in heavy rotation on CMT, this single too failed to chart. ‘Out of Control Raging Fire’ was also previously recorded by Tracy Byrd. Travis Tritt also appears on ‘I Know You’re Married (But I Love You Still)’, a bluegrass standard which sounds admirable in the pair’s hands.
‘Daniel Prayed’, one two gospel songs on the album, features Ricky Skaggs and Carmella Ramsey on harmony. The tune has long been a staple of Ralph Stanley’s shows and was composed by the good doctor. An original gospel tune, written by Patty and Emory Gordy Jr. is the rollicking ‘Rise Up Lazarus’ and it’s one of the most enjoyable tracks on the set.
Earl Scruggs provides the banjo on ‘Pretty Little Miss’, another Loveless/Gordy composition. The combination of dobro, mandolin, and fiddles, along with Scruggs’ unparalleled banjo playing make this clever lyric all the more satisfying. Another of the album’s most satisfying numbers, to my ears, is Tommy Connors and Leslie Satcher’s ‘Sorrowful Angels’. It’s an interesting lyric about a woman who falls in love with a man and he denies her his affections. She carries the torch for him the rest of her life, until now ‘her hair is long and gray’. Rebecca Lynn Howard and Jon Randall’s soft background vocals heighten the melancholy in the chorus. This is the sort of country song that just doesn’t get written and recorded nearly enough anymore.
Jon Randall appears again, as a duet partner this time, on ‘Someone I Used To Know’, a song that was originally recorded by George Jones as ‘A Girl I Used To Know’ and was re-recorded by Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton with the new title. Martina McBride’s ‘Cheap Whiskey’ is also given a more rustic, down-home feel here. Likewise, ‘You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive’ was later recorded by Brad Paisley and Kathy Mattea, but this stripped-down version, coupled with Patty’s plaintive vocal, remains my favorite.
Patty does a little title-changing of her own as well, reworking The Soggy Bottom Boys’ hit from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, giving it a feminine touch as ‘Soul of Constant Sorrow’. With nearly an a cappella opening, Patty is joined by Carmella Ramsey and Ricky Skaggs again for harmony vocals, and Skaggs provides the mandolin for this track as well. While I have always loved Dan Tyminski’s version, I’m partial to this sparse arrangement and Patty’s Kentucky drawl just fits the song perfectly.
Closing the set is a re-take on Patty’s own ‘Sounds of Loneliness’, first recorded for her debut album on MCA. Since it was written and copyrighted when she was still a teenager, it is credited to her as Patty Ramey. This time it’s given a Celtic flavor and even features some humming at the end. I think I prefer the original – it’s just flawless, but this is still a marvelous recording and a model finale to the album.
With Mountain Soul, Patty Loveless paid homage to the songs and sounds she grew up with during her Kentucky childhood and gave us a masterpiece of modern bluegrass and mountain music. The coal miner’s daughter from Pikeville bared her soul and her artistry shone through. Mountain Soul is truly a masterpiece of sound; the sounds of the mountains and its proud inhabitants. These are their songs, and their sounds: bluegrass, acoustic folk ballads, foot-stomping gospel numbers. And this is their daughter singing them. In the hands of Patty Loveless, I’m sure Kentucky is proud to call itself The Bluegrass State.
Mountain Soul is available at all digital and major retailers. You can buy it from Amazon in any format.