With a classic country voice and one of the strongest catalogs in the business, Patty Loveless has been inspiring fierce loyalty among fans for more than two decades. So much so, in fact, that I would personally shy away from even attempting to rank her discography, on the suspicion that there are many among my readers better suited to the task. Thankfully, I’ve managed to coerce one such reader into doing the ranking job for me. Enter twenty-plus years of Loveless albums, as lovingly considered by the estimable Blake Boldt. As always, feel free to discuss the list and give your own rankings (of as many albums as you’ve heard) in the comments.
Thanks again, Blake, but I don’t know if I can let you write here again. How am I supposed to follow this?
1. Mountain Soul (2001)
This homage to Loveless’ coal-mining roots blends country and bluegrass masterfully, securing her place as a rare messenger of the musical tradition laid before her. Of particular interest is “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” a stunning piece of literature lifted by Loveless’ mountain twang. Here, she’s boosted by her faith in God (“Daniel Prayed,” “Rise Up, Lazarus”) and her own sheer self-reliance (“Sounds of Loneliness,” written when Patty was just fourteen). On an album that so lovingly mourned the death of her father, Loveless herself has never sounded more alive.
2. Sleepless Nights (2008)
Fourteen classic country cuts are given a gorgeous treatment, with standards like Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” and Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” reprised with faithful, flawless versions that lean heavily on traditional country instrumentation. The true standouts, though, are the lesser-known cuts. Loveless is aided by Vince Gill on the title cut, a mournful ballad written by the husband-wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. And “The Pain of Loving You,” originally a Dolly-Porter duet, is a simply exquisite showcase of a luminous voice, a lovely melody and a timeless lyric.
3. On Your Way Home (2003)
Whether she’s feeling randy (Rodney Crowell’s “Lovin’ All Night”) or restless (“Nothin’ Like the Lonely”), Loveless accepts nothing but the best out of romance. Just a dozen minutes in, she stops you cold with the title track, a Matraca Berg-Ronnie Samoset cheating ballad that stands among her finest recordings. Confronting her unfaithful husband, she echoes both her anger and still-burning desire to save the marriage. “I might stay here,” she warns, “just to spite you.” Loveless ends this all-acoustic set with “Last in a Long Lonesome Line,” mourning the last gasp of traditional country, and the heart-wrenching ballad “The Grandpa That I Know,” a living, breathing account of a family funeral. Blending the musical backdrop of Mountain Soul with a modern edge, Loveless turned in a true masterwork.
4. Long Stretch of Lonesome (1997)
On this Grammy-nominated disc, Loveless peaks with a pair of mid-tempo numbers where the home fires are barely burning. On Kim Richey’s “That’s Exactly What I Mean,” a country-pop delight, she rings true with a demanding, determined wail. Then, she teams with George Jones on the fantastic “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me,” a duet that met with a cold reception at radio but was rightly awarded the CMA Vocal Event of the Year prize in 1998. The spiritual symbolism in Gretchen Peters’ “Like Water into Wine” also satisfies, as well as the lessons-learned ballad “Too Many Memories.”
5. The Trouble with the Truth (1996)
TIME Magazine listed this platinum-selling set to their all-genre top ten list in 1996, and deservedly so. A pair of No. 1 singles – “You Can Feel Bad” and “Lonely Too Long” – earned the most ink, but the title track is the clear highlight. The truth is her shadow – it hangs around her door; it haunts her dreams; it settles deep into her ever-strayin’ heart. Loveless gives a pitch-perfect testimony, her voice declaring assurance – and fear – in the truth’s presence. “A Thousand Times A Day,” a clever callback to Connie Smith’s classic “Once a Day,” shows Loveless giving up the hard stuff, but not the heartache… or the truth for that matter.
6. When Fallen Angels Fly (1994)
Named CMA Album of the Year in 1995, Angels placed Loveless firmly among the superstars of country music and struck a perfect balance between modern impluses and retro country sounds. Tony Arata’s “Here I Am,” a bleak tale of loss and longing, is sold by the power of Loveless’ aching performance. And spiritual cuts like “A Handful of Dust” and the title track are pure poetry, establishing her as the most eloquent female singer of the mid-’90s.
7. Dreamin’ My Dreams (2005)
With her last album for Epic Records, Loveless kicks off with Richard Thompson’s “Keep Your Distance,” a lyrical gem that leads with a searing steel guitar line. Emmylou’s here for a plaintive harmony part on “When Being Who You Are is Not Enough.” So is Dwight Yoakam (a fellow Pikeville, KY export) for a fun remake of the folky classic “Never-Ending Song of Love.” But Steve Earle is Loveless’ spiritual soulmate on Dreams; his long-gone-lonesome “My Old Friend the Blues” is the emotional centerpiece of this fine effort.
8. Only What I Feel (1993)
If you’re lucky enough to hear Loveless on country radio today, she’s likely singing Harlan Howard’s tongue-twister “Blame It On Your Heart.” Though it remains her biggest commercial hit, it’s the spare ballads that truly shine on this fine set, Loveless’ return after career-threatening vocal surgery. On “Nothin’ But the Wheel” she takes a late-night drive with just her heartache and the highway as company. “What’s a Broken Heart” (“It’s only what I feel,” she swears) stings with her honest, straightforward alto. And of course, the Grammy-nominated “How Can I Help You to Say Goodbye” was a brilliant addition to Nashville’s canon of story songs and established its singer as one of the most compelling vocalists of her time.
9. If My Heart Had Windows (1988)
The title cut became a top ten hit twice over when Loveless sent her rendition to radio in 1988, more than two decades after George Jones went to No. 7 with the Dallas Frazier-penned ode to love and devotion. Steve Earle’s rockabilly jaunt “A Little Bit in Love” followed “Windows” up the charts, topping out at No. 2 and earning Loveless the first of two Horizon Award nominations. It’s a shame that first single, “You Saved Me,” a chill-inducing performance she’d later dedicate to husband-producer, Emory Gordy, Jr., failed to light fire to the charts. The rollicking “So Good to Be in Love” and regret-filled “Baby’s Gone Blues” are also worthy of mention.
10. Honky Tonk Angel (1988)
With five top ten singles, Honky Tonk Angel shows a maturing woman whose modern sensibilities dovetail nicely with her tradition-minded musical stylings. Vince Gill lends harmony on Loveless’ first No. 1 single, the infectious “Timber, I’m Falling in Love,” and Gill’s former bandmate, Rodney Crowell does the same on the best track, the beautiful “Don’t Toss Us Away.”
11. Strong Heart (2000)
Skip the silly opening cut (“You’re So Cool”) and you’ll discover an underrated collection that marked Loveless’ return after a near three-year absence from recording. The lost-innocence story “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again” (with Trisha Yearwood on harmony) is the best cut, with Loveless willing us – and herself – to believe that the “painful memories will make you strong.” But top twenty single “The Last Thing on My Mind” and the death-did-us-part ballad “She Never Stopped Loving Him” test that hard-won faith.
12. On Down the Line (1990) and 13. Up Against My Heart (1991)
Though neither album matched the commercial results or critical acclaim of Honky Tonk Angel, this pair of early ’90s discs saw Loveless stretching into blues-rock (Up Against My Heart‘s “Jealous Bone”) and pop-country (On Down the Line‘s “I’m That Kind of Girl”).
14. Patty Loveless (1986)
Her self-titled debut disc is generally paint-by-number neotrad country, but Loveless’ composition “I Did” and the Karen Staley stunner “Half Over You” earn high marks.