It was an expectantly still winter night. But indoors, the posh Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium — so crowded the rest-room line was 20 minutes deep — seemed an unlikely place to witness miracles.
And yet, that evening, something miraculous occurred: Emmylou Harris was upstaged.
The Down from the Mountain ensemble tour was only two nights old on Jan. 26, and the hall was flush with anticipation. Down from the Mountain was inspired by the concert/documentary that featured the late John Hartford (which was, in turn, sparked by the recently Grammy-gilded O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack), and every performer, from the wee Peasall sisters to headliner Dr. Ralph Stanley, seemed genuinely happy to be there. When Emmylou Harris, resplendent as ever in a floor-length flamenco gown, eased her soul into “Hickory Wind,” it was, well, a revelation.
And then Patty Loveless sang.
The trouble with an ensemble show, of course — especially one as suspiciously star-flecked as Down from the Mountain — is that no one gets more than a moment to shine. But when Loveless sang, time hovered. Granted, it’s flimsy logic to compare her spoon-bending vocal strength to Harris’ haunting vibrato: Both dwell in superior camps all their own.
But when Loveless offered up Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” her vibe was so potent, so drenched in heart, she unwittingly neutralized the night’s prior performances.
At least one other concertgoer might agree with that assessment. Somewhere from the middle rows that night, a male fan decided to speak for all. In the wowed silence that followed her song, his lone croak probably carried better than he expected: “We love you, Patty!”
Coming down the mountain
“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” comes from Mountain Soul (Sony/Epic, 2001), Loveless’ much-discussed return-to-roots disc that also features her version of such mountain staples as “Shady Grove” (reclaimed by Loveless and her producer husband, Emory Gordy Jr. — not without controversy — as “Pretty Little Miss”); straight-up bluegrass/gospel fare (Ralph Stanley’s “Daniel Prayed,” “Two Coats”); and crossover ballads like “Sorrowful Angels.”
Loveless began hitting the upper parts of the country charts in the late ’80s, and was named the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year in 1997 and ’98. Her reputation as a Nashville darling provoked some bluegrass purists to brand Mountain Soul a bandwagon effort. According to a Calgary Sun article, however, Mountain Soul has been in the works since the early ’90s. And even back in the ’80s — years before it became hip again — the singer was including bluegrass songs on her records. You might say she doesn’t play mountain music — rather, she is mountain music: Not too many other No Depression cover girls could match Appalachian pedigrees with Loveless. Born Patty Ramey near Pikeville, Ky., the 40-something singer is the daughter of a coal miner. Her father, John Ramey, died of black lung in the late ’70s.
The L.A.-raised Gillian Welch — whose bony, cultivated singing voice has become infinitely more associated with hill-country melancholy than Loveless’ stormy twang — can be heard several times on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Initially tapped for the Down from the Mountain tour, she had to decline. As it turns out, Loveless — who isn’t included on O Brother — was her replacement.
“I believe [Welch] had other obligations,” the soft-spoken singer said in a recent phone interview. “They were trying to find someone that would kind of fit that format … and the recognition that Mountain Soul had gotten stirred their curiosity about asking me to do it.”
Weighing in on the O Brother phenomenon, Loveless acknowledged the irony of the situation: Inevitably, a portion of the movie’s many fans have assumed that bluegrass began when the Coen brothers said “action.” But whether from honest graciousness or a star’s graciousness — or some of both — Loveless avoids making an issue out of it.
“There’s a lot of music I myself don’t know a lot about,” she says. “I used to think country and ’50s rock ‘n’ roll was it — and bluegrass, of course, from my father. It was the music I grew up with and listened to. [But] a lot of people didn’t necessarily grow up with it, and the movie kind of struck them — ‘Where did this [music] come from?’ They didn’t know it had been around so long. Now that they do, maybe they’ll appreciate it even more.
“Sometimes,” Loveless muses, “people want to hear music just for the fact that they like it. You don’t have to dissect it or do any research to find out where it comes from. You just know what you like.”
Writing on the wall
Despite some traveling woes (at one point, the Nashville Bluegrass Band’s bus reportedly broke down in the snow), Loveless says the air of camaraderie that marked the Spartanburg show held steady throughout the month-long first leg of the Down from the Mountain tour.
“Everyone,” she says, “really enjoyed being around each other, and I really believe [being on the tour] was good for myself. … I know that. In some ways, the tour gave me a breather, a chance to be able to enjoy someone else’s performance, rather than doing a tour, like with Tim McGraw, when you have to plan a 60-minute [opening show].”
Down from the Mountain, she continues, “allowed me to be in front of an audience I possibly had never been in front of before, and it gave me an opportunity to be with artists I knew of, but I had never had the opportunity to hang with them or perform with them on the same stage.”
Loveless plays Merlefest on April 28 — another first. “[There], I’ll be playing to an audience that’s very open to music,” she predicts. “Merlefest will give me the opportunity to play in … an acoustic setting, and do it with a full band.” (She brought only a fiddle player with her for Down from the Mountain, but most of the musicians who played on Mountain Soul will join her for the Merlefest gig.)
What you won’t hear is a lot of Loveless originals. She did write “Sounds of Loneliness,” a lingering tide of heartache that anchors the Songcatcher soundtrack and closes out Mountain Soul — but that was three decades ago, when she was 14. “I think Mountain Soul kind of helped me as far as shyness [about songwriting],” she allows. But she’s reluctant to hash out the source of that shyness. “I really don’t know. … I guess I’ve always been [that way]. … When I was a kid, when I would write things, I wasn’t so quick about sharing them.”
However, “I am counting on trying to get back to more writing,” she reveals. So is there something along the lines of Emmylou Harris’ genre-melding Red Dirt Girl (that singer’s first major songwriting project) in Patty’s future? Not quite.
Having just wrapped up a Christmas album, Loveless recently began work on a new record. Purists may not approve, but these days, Loveless says she is “sort of trying to make mainstream country as much as possible, getting back to the basics of what I was five years ago.”
One senses a note of nostalgia in her voice — and, with Mountain Soul out of her system, it’s not a high-lonesome note, either. Asked if Down from the Mountain’s ensemble format presented any artistic or logistical challenges, Loveless immediately invokes a certain Nashville institution. At the Grand Ole Opry, she explains fondly, “You never know who’s gonna walk up there and perform with each other. … There’s been times that I’ve played the Opry where I may walk out and sing with Porter Wagoner, or I may walk out and sing with Vince Gill, depending on who’s there. … That’s sort of the way I was looking at that whole [Down from the Mountain] show.
“It was,” she says, “very intimate — almost like a play, a musical play. But not exactly.”
Now celebrating its 15th year, Merlefest — the Southeast’s premier Americana-music festival — honors Doc Watson’s late son, Merle. Merlefest happens Thursday April 25 through Sunday April 28 on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C. The Patty Loveless Band plays the Watson Stage on Sunday April 28 at 3:15 p.m. Other headlining acts joining Doc Watson and his grandson, Richard, include Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas, The Sam Bush Band, Leahy, Nickel Creek, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Earl Scruggs & Friends, Tony Rice, Tim O’Brien, Yonder Mountain String Band and Jorma Kaukonen. Merlefest also includes the Doc Watson Guitar Championship, the Merle Watson Bluegrass Banjo Championship, and the famed Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, plus many other attractions. Various ticket packages, including single-day passes starting at $30, are available. Wilkes Community College is about two hours northeast of Asheville, accessible from I-40 E and 421 N. For detailed directions, lodging opportunities, ticket prices, stage schedules, and more information, call (800) 343-7857 or check out the festival’s excellent Web site, www.merlefest.org.