Even though she has released a string of powerful records, Patty Loveless has gotten lost in the country-music headlines over the last few years, as other Nashville singers have garnered most of the press and the awards. Now her stunning fifth album, Up Against My Heart, should finally serve as her breakthrough, ringing with the honesty and truth of a singer whose emotional strength and keening quality come from her Appalachian heritage and its deep roots of hardship and heartache.
Ever since her self-titled debut in 1987, it’s been clear that Loveless is one of the most promising of country music’s new traditionalists, embracing the ”old-time” sounds as an artistic successor to her cousin Loretta Lynn. Almost no other woman on today’s country charts seems so authentically backwoods — her wild-and-wounded voice speaks convincingly and sorrowfully of a country innocence violated and spoiled by the corruption of the city.
But Loveless tempers this ancient sound with a contemporary sensibility. Like neo-traditionalist Emmylou Harris, she isn’t afraid of a sassy country- rock beat or progressive lyrics that paint her as a woman who knows what she wants from love and isn’t ashamed to expose either her strength or her vulnerability. Nothing about her albums — from their lean but muscular instrumental tracks to Loveless’ hard Kentucky accent and frequent heart- stopping falsetto leaps — seems faked or forced.
But never has her material worked so well before. On ”Hurt Me Bad (In a Real Good Way),” a loping country-rock track with a hairpin melodic turn, she values the pain of breaking up with an old beau, since it led her to finding a better, lasting love. ”If It’s the Last Thing I Do,” a song of lifelong heartache, beautifully underscored by a moaning fiddle and a skittering mandolin, summons so much strength that it gives as much fortitude to the listener as it does to the singer.
Only one song here allows Loveless to seethe in anger: ”Jealous Bone,” a dark, menacing spell laid over a driving beat. Music of a scarred psyche and a pent-up libido, it carries the vague threat that blood will spill tonight. With the exception of a cover of Lyle Lovett’s bitter ”God Will,” the material here enforces Loveless’ image as an easily wounded woman who depends on strength, hope, and determination to see her through.
For the third year in a row, Loveless has been nominated for the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year award, but her lack of both flamboyance and any desire to play Nashville politics may again hold her back. Nevertheless, she has proven herself one of the industry’s most vital performers, making records not just for the radio, but also for the pure solace of the soul. A+