Patty Loveless was dropped by Epic following disappointing sales and minimal airplay for her last album for the label, Dreamin’ My Dreams. She was in no hurry to make her next move, taking some time off the road to move down to Georgia, and dealing with family deaths and illness, but in 2008 she signed with the independent label Saguaro Road, and in September that year she released a new album, produced as usual by husband Emory Gordy Jr. She cast aside thoughts of regaining her chart-topping status, and instead recorded a tribute to traditional country music. It was heralded as a kind of companion piece or counterpart to 2001’s Mountain Soul, as it was billed on the cover as “the traditional country soul” of Patty Loveless. What resulted was even better than we could have expected. Sleepless Nights is a masterpiece.
Classic cover albums have a tendency to fall into one of two main categories: excessively cautious tributes where the artist sounds frankly overwhelmed by the thought of competing with a much-loved original, and ends up producing a carbon copy or high quality karaoke; and trying too hard to put their own stamp on the material in such a way that the merits of the original song are stifled. Sleepless Nights triumphantly avoids either pitfall. Patty sounds thoroughly invested in the material and style, and makes it sound alive. Her versions of each of these songs sounds as though it could have been the original classic version.
George Jones is a very challenging artist to risk comparison with, although perhaps it is less dangerous for a female vocalist where the comparisons will inevitably be less deleterious. Patty had already successfully tackled one Jones classic in the form of ‘If My Heart Had Windows’ back in the early days, and she chose to open Sleepless Nights with George’s first hit single (in 1955), the honky tonking ‘Why Baby Why’ (with a couple of minor lyric changes to fit the change in gender) which also served as the single released to promote this album. Sadly, if predictably, it was far too traditional for today’s country radio, but it is a perfect opening to the album as Patty tears into the song, the most up-tempo on the set.
Patty also picked three more Jones songs, including a truly lovely version of one of his greatest classics (written by Dickey Lee). ‘She Thinks I Still Care’ is altered here to ‘He Thinks I Still Care’. There is a fantastic take on ‘Color Of The Blues’ on which Patty actually achieves the almost impossible: improving on a song once recorded by George Jones as she infuses the lyric with pain. The most obscure Jones cover is ‘That’s All It Took’, from one of his 1960s duet albums with pop singer Gene Pitney, which is probably best known today from the 1970s cover by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Patty’s version features her former guitarist, Australian Jedd Hughes, on harmonies.
The repertoire is divided between great but relatively obscure material and some real country standards which have been recorded many times. Patty’s slowed-down version of the country standard ‘Crazy Arms’, a #1 hit for Ray Price in 1956, may be my favorite track on Sleepless Nights, and stands comparison with any of the previous versions, including that of Patsy Cline. ‘There Stands The Glass’, a hit for Webb Pierce, is also great, completely convincing and matching previous versions of the song. ‘There Goes My Everything’, written by Dallas Frazier (who also wrote ‘If My Heart Had Windows’), was originally a hit for Jack Greene in 1966; it is largely forgotten today but Patty brings a fine song alive for a new audience.
Another highlight of this album is Patty’s version of ‘I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know About Him’, which was the only hit for the Davis Sisters in 1953, meanwhile, one of the two unrelated “sisters”, Skeeter Davis, went on to a successful solo career after the tragic death of singing partner Mary Jack. Although it has been covered a number of times, this is one song extremely strongly associated with the close-harmony original, which stayed at #1 for eight weeks, but Patty really does bring her own stamp of authority to it.
Patty picked several other songs originally popularized by duos. ‘The Pain of Loving You’ was originally a duet for its writers, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, who had offered the teenage Patty encouragement, and it was also recorded by the Osborne Brothers in 1971. Dolly revived the song on her Trio collaboration with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt in 1987, as Patty herself was making her first inroads on the charts. The song calls for a harmony treatment, and prominent harmonies from 15 year old Sydni Perry (a child prodigy bluegrass fiddle player, although she doesn’t play here) ornament Patty’s version.
According to an interview she did with Roughstock at the time of the album’s release, Patty picked up ‘The Next In Line’, with its plaintive tale of faithful but unrequited love for what is in the original honky tonk angel, from versions by Gram Parsons and the Everly Brothers, although many people will know Conway Twitty’s #1 hit from 1968.
The title track, written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, is one of the least known songs brought alive for a new audience. It was a 1960 album track for the Everly Brothers and recorded by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris in the 70s but only released after Gram’s death. It was also covered by the Judds in the 80s. Patty’s version is beautifully done, featuring tasteful harmonies from Vince Gill, but the overall standard of the material is so high that this is probably my least favorite track. ‘Don’t Let Me Cross Over’, originally another duet (for Carl and Pearl Butler), is a delightful plaintive appeal to a married lover not to tempt her “over love’s cheating line”. It is immediately followed by the identically themed ‘Please Help Me I’m Falling’, a country standard which attracted its own answer song when Hank Locklin issued his original hit in 1960.
You could hardly have a tribute to classic country without a Hank Williams song, and Patty picked one of his very best in the great ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ to close the album out. The song sounds perfectly suited to her emotionally spot-on interpretation.
Digital versions of the album featured bonus versions of Carl Butler’s much-recorded ‘If Teardrops Were Pennies’, first a hit for Carl Smith (father of Carlene Carter and first husband of June Carter Cash) in 1951 and revived by Porter and Dolly in 1973, and ‘We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning’, best known from the version by Gram and Emmylou, but also previously recorded by Carl and Pearl Butler.
Although most of the material dates from the 50s and 60s, this album never once sounds like an exercise in nostalgia, and although there isn’t a “happy” song on it, the whole thing is a sheer joy to listen to notwithstanding the theme of unhappy love. Every track sounds completely fresh and alive, with Patty at her very best vocally. Emory Gordy’s production and the musicians support her sympathetically throughout. This is a masterclass in making traditional sounds relevant to modern listeners while retaining the spirit of the original. In the liner notes, Patty is quoted saying she wanted “to inspire and remind people of what country is made of” by making this record, and she achieved that. It is a sad indictment on the state of the industry and its failure to acknowledge its heritage that country radio completely ignored this record. Because this is what country music is.