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Patty Loveless, Sweetest Country Music Queen from Kentucky

By Edited Jul 2, 2016 3 5

Sweet Heat

I’m not the most perfect singer out there but I’m a real emotional singer.  I think that people can hear that I connect with the lyrics.
Patty Loveless

 

Classic Country music had its roots in the hillbilly songs of Appalachia and the early bluesy tunings of African-American sharecroppers. 

The sound evolved into something less rootsy, however; by the early 1960s a newer trend, that of Countrypolitan, had taken hold and changed what was once the music of the common people into a product designed and machined for consumption along certain formulaic lines.  This sound used some elements of the older style, but the vocals were more affected and the arrangements scored with precision, using many non-traditional instruments (heavy orchestration or smaller string sections versus a mere “fiddle” player, for example).

Interestingly enough, this slicker version of Country music was created in response to the grittier stylings of the late 1950s known as the “Bakersfield Sound”.  This was the purview of outsiders (living both literally and metaphorically outside of the “Nashville Establishment”); icons Buck Owens and Merle Haggard probably best typified that earlier, rougher, more primal music.  By the early 1980s it was often difficult to listen to an unknown Country artist and easily separate his/her record from whatever passed for Top 40 pop music. 

There emerged a group of newer Country artists at that time who felt that modern Country music was being subverted in the process of creating “product”.  This

Patty Loveless
neophyte bunch became known as the “New Traditionalists”.  They embraced Country’s older, more basic musings lyrically and also in the arranging of the music itself.  Elements of gut-bucket blues and bare-bones bluegrass worked their way back into the mix.

Among this group of quasi-purists was a quietly dynamic singer and songwriter, Patty Loveless. And her ramblings around the US as a child and young adult gave her the life experience to write songs of heartfelt pining and romantic angst, sometimes sung with a smirk, but sincere in ways not heard in decades.

Patty Cake  
Patty Lee Ramey was born in Pikeville, Kentucky on January 4, 1957.  [The Rameys actually lived in Elkhorn City, over 20 miles to Pikeville’s southeast.]  Her family was large: there were seven children in the household of her coal-miner dad and homemaker mother. 

In birth order, Patty was the sixth; the oldest child was a daughter named Ruth.  The new baby girl was generally given over to Ruth for her primary care (Patty would come to call her big sister “Second Mom”).  Amusingly, probably in response to having little in the way of material possessions, Ruth took a six-week-old Patty to school as a thing to present for show-and-tell!

The senior Ramey had been stricken with black lung, and his condition was bad enough he needed to be in a city where better medical care was available.  He chose Louisville, Kentucky, and in 1969 he uprooted the family and moved there.

Another of her older sisters, Dottie, along with a brother, Roger, had delved into Country music in the hopes of Dottie’s becoming a Country singer.  They had played some gigs around Eastern Kentucky, but in 1969 Dottie got married and quit.  Patty got bitten by the music bug thanks to

Young Patty Loveless
her siblings’ endeavors, and she picked up the guitar.  In the wake of Dottie’s quitting his band as vocalist brother Roger talked 12-year-old Patty into joining him as a singer. 

Her début was at a small show in Hodgenville, Kentucky.  With her brother’s comforting presence the terrified tween managed to do a good job on several songs.  At the end of the show she was paid $5 (equivalent to a bit over $30 today, pretty good money for a kid).  She became his true partner when he renamed his group “The Singin’ Swingin’ Rameys”, and they played clubs in the Louisville area.  A local dee-jay took a shine to this brother-sister act and he sought out bookings for them whenever he knew of a vacant slot to play somewhere. 

Nashville Lights
Roger Ramey was not content with the small-time shows they were playing.  He moved to Nashville in 1970 and snagged a plum job on The Porter Wagoner Show (a syndicated program that ran for 686 half-hour episodes from 1960 to 1981).

Porter Wagoner was perhaps the poster child for Countrypolitan.  He dressed in the Country music flash of the day in suits by Nudie Cohn (the famous “Nudie suit”) and those made by

Porter Wagoner
cut-rate competitor, Manuel Cuevas (who had married Nudie’s daughter).  Wagoner acted very gentlemanly on-air, with a certain refined, understated panache.  His music was smooth and finessed. 

He originally partnered on TV with a female Country singer named Norma Jean for several years.  Norma was replaced briefly by Jeannie Seely. 

It was Porter who used his show, starting in 1966, to promote a budding singer/songwriter named Dolly Parton.  That year she replaced Country singer Jeanie Seely—voted “Most Promising New Artist by not only Billboard, but Cashbox and Record World in 1966—on the program.  Dolly featured as a regular starting in 1967.  [She left the show (and Porter’s care) in 1974.  She penned “I Will Always Love You” as a parting paean to Wagoner; it went to Number One on the Country charts and also had cross-over appeal.  With Wagoner’s mentoring she became a Country music superstar.]

Sensing something greater in Patty, Roger Ramey got her to Nashville in 1971.  Knowing of Porter Wagoner’s on-going “grooming” of Dolly Parton, Roger felt he could use his position on Wagoner’s production staff to get his 14-year-old sister a shot at making an impression on someone of influence.

Once in Nashville, Roger stormed into Porter’s office (without an appointment), dragging Patty behind.   He talked Porter Wagoner into giving Patty a quick listen; she demoed a piece she had written called “Sounds of Loneliness” (dedicated to her father).  Porter was impressed; he agreed to help her.  He introduced the starry-eyed Patty to Dolly Parton (and over the years Patty and Dolly became very close).  He admonished the girl to finish school, but tempered that directive by telling her she could come out on the road with Dolly and him on weekends (while school was in session) and during the summer months (of school vacation).

Patty got a huge career break in 1973.  One of the Grand Ole Opry’s package tours was slated for a show in Louisville, Kentucky.  The line-up included “Whisperin’” Bill Anderson, Jean Shepard, Connie Smith, and the Wilburn Brothers.

Jean Shepard, in true Country-music fashion, got caught in a flood and couldn’t make the show.  Roger’s and Patty’s Louisville dee-jay friend saw a chance for them to play out with some big names.  He finagled a slot in the show where Jean would have played.  The Rameys got 15 minutes of stage time.

Doyle Wilburn, having heard Patty at the Louisville show, approached her with an offer to join the Wilburns.  She agreed.  Only, she took the offer under the same terms she had played out with Porter and Dolly—weekends during the school year and summers. 

All of this was done with her parents’ blessings on one condition: Doyle Wilburn had to look out for her and keep her out of trouble.

Not a Porn Star
Her job with the Wilburn Brothers saw her though her high school graduation in 1975. 

After that, she continued to tour with them roughly full-time while still working on her own material and developing her vocal style.  Doyle Wilburn, knowing Patty was capable of writing her own songs and having heard much of her output, took the opportunity to sign her to a publishing contract with his songwriting agency.  During down times Doyle had her working as a waitress in a restaurant he owned and clerking at a record store of his.

The Wilburns had acquired a new drummer, Terry Lovelace.  His chops were more oriented toward rock music, but he toed the Country line with the Wilburns.  He was from Kings Mountain in North Carolina, a small town about 30 miles west of Charlotte.  For some reason, Patty felt his “small town” background was in common with hers (though Terry’s hometown had almost ten times the population of lowly Elkhorn City in Kentucky, Patty’s hometown.]  She took a liking to Terry Lovelace, and to steer clear of Doyle Wilburn’s oversight (promised to her parents) the pair kept their budding romance a secret.

As in all closed communities (and a working band is perhaps the next best thing to a family about knowing secrets and who is doing what with whom) Doyle Wilburn got wind of the clandestine affair between his drummer and his star singer.  Fearing she would end up pregnant (which would ruin her on-stage presence and stymie the band’s continued success) he made the unfortunate decision to tell her to break off her relationship with Terry Lovelace.

Instead, Patty broke off her relationship with the Wilburn Brothers; at 19 years old she figured no one was going to tell her who she could or could not love.  She and Terry split with the band and moved off to his base of Kings Mountain.  From there they worked with a pick-up band playing rock gigs in small venues around North Carolina. 

In early 1976, the two married.  Patty Ramey became Patty Lovelace. 

But over time she perceived a bit of a problem with her new last name, “Lovelace”.  Infamous porn actress, Linda Lovelace (b: 1949; d: 2002; star of the infinitely naïve and stupid, yet classically regarded, mainstream adult movie, 1972’s Deep Throat) was still a known “celebrity” in the mid 1970s. 

Patty wanted no association with the sniggering negative connotations that any woman with that surname might get from giggling idiots (“Patty Lovelace? Is Linda Lovelace yer sister?? How’s about a date, little darlin’??  Hyuk-hyuk-hyuk!”).  She changed her name for professional reasons to “Loveless”.  [There is certain àpropos to her choice of last name as well: in many of her songs her “narrator” is truly “loveless”.]

Rockin’ & Drinkin’
The band she and her husband played in mostly covered rock tunes with some Country-tinged things (cover songs in the Linda Ronstadt idiom) and some bluesier pieces by the likes of Bonnie Raitt thrown into the mix.

Patty’s and Terry’s tough row to hoe, as a working act playing crummy clubs and bars, meant lean times financially.  Some of the venues they played were shut down, busted by police for things like drinking-age violations, etc., limiting their incomes.  Patty waitressed at a restaurant that Terry’s mother owned to help make ends meet.  Perhaps as a response to frustrations from lack of progress in “getting noticed” and simple youthful irresponsibility the couple started drinking heavily.

Because she had gone off and married Terry Lovelace against her parents’ wishes, and because her father did not approve of her goal to be in the music business, Patty was estranged from her family. One of her lowest points in life was when her father died in 1979; it was her mother-in-law who called to break the news.

Patty was devastated perhaps because she had not made peace with the man before his death: “I felt I’d let my family down so I started to cut my wrists.”  She then suddenly thought of the life her mother had lived, raising children, moving away from their rural home and having to adapt to a strange place (Louisville), and then having her husband die.  She thought, “What gives you the right to drink your life away . . . She gave you life . . . why should you take that from her?”  This epiphany led Patty to give up her hard drinking.

Time to Fly
Still slogging it out in the clubs, Patty wanted a change of pace by 1984.  Many of what would become artists in the “New Traditionalist” vein (Ricky Skaggs, for one) were making serious waves on the charts and with fans with their more spared-down Country sounds.  She tried her hand once more at Country music, gigging in a club where her sets consisted of no rock music, only Country.  And while her re-entry into Country music may have been satisfying on stage, it was getting her nowhere.

And her marriage was on the skids, too: “We lost respect for each other.  And it got to the point that we didn’t know each other.”  So, in addition to giving up rock ’n’ roll on stage she also decided it was in her best interests to give up Terry Lovelace.

Frustrated and wanting something better she contacted brother Roger (still working in Nashville) in April 1985.  He helped her get back there and away from the dead-end of North Carolina and Terry Lovelace.  He and Patty worked up a demo tape of five songs, among which was one she had written as a teenager, “I Did”.  Roger went to work promoting her and shopping the demo tape around town.

His efforts came to naught; after a month of being either ignored or outright rejected he decided to follow the same brash course he had years earlier when he successfully got Patty noticed by Porter Wagoner.  Roger headed for MCA (Nashville’s biggest recording company).  Using a complete line of b.s. (by pretending to be someone else) he got in to see MCA’s head of A&R.  It immediately became clear to this man, Tony Brown, that Roger Ramey was not whom he had been awaiting when Roger brought forth the demo tape of Patty and blurted, “I’ve got the best girl singer to ever come to Nashville!”

Brown, perhaps amused and maybe intrigued by Roger’s hyperbole, agreed to give him literally thirty seconds of his valuable time.  He hit “play” and Patty’s voice floated above “I Did”; Tony Brown listened to more than the thirty seconds’ worth he’d promised: he ran through the whole tape.

Roger Ramey’s bluffing skills were on fire that day.  Brown told him to leave the tape and he’d get it to other MCA execs to listen to and mull over.  Roger told him flatly, “No way”: there was another record company looking at Patty, and he wanted a commitment that day from MCA or he’d march. 

Tony Brown bought Roger’s line; he took the tape to MCA’s president while Roger cooled his heels.  He came back with an offer: MCA’s president wasn’t as fired up about Patty as Tony Brown was, but he told Brown to go ahead if he wanted and sign her to a short-term, singles-only contract.  That way, if she was a bust, MCA wouldn’t be out that much investment-wise and could cut her loose quickly enough.

Rise
Patty was given MCA’s best producer (Emory Gordy, Jr.) as her captain in the studio.  Several tracks were canned to be released on a timetable as singles.  The first was “Lonely Days, Lonely Nights” (released in December 1985, the tune peaked at #46 in January 1986 after an eight-week run).  Her second offering did better, and paved the way for a long-lasting and musically adventurous career as an album artist.

The single MCA released by her next was the song she’d written as a teen, the same one that had gotten her the MCA deal in the first place, “I Did”.  The day “I Did” was sent out four other singles were also released by MCA.  These others were by artists with MCA album contracts. 

Vinyl LPs were still the biggest selling format, with the most royalty and profit margins attached.  The CD-single format was too costly for the average music buyer: too little music for the money.  Cassette singles didn’t move the earth, either. 

The 45-rpm 7” vinyl disc, upon which many musical acts made their money, was quickly becoming a thing of the past.  Thus, a single’s true function by then was not to get one song into a consumer’s hands.  Its job was to pique interest in the artist and the album (or full-length CD or cassette) from which the song was culled.  This translated into vinyl LP sales.  In short, the single (as heard on the radio) was only a marketing tool by the 1980s.

Patty’s song, “I Did”, was outpacing the other singles (by the album artists) released that day in radio play.  It was also netting sales on its own in the limited forms available then (in the pre-Internet and pre-MP3 days). 

In what has to be perhaps a prelude to one of the strangest contract re-negotiations in music history Patty Loveless was called into the office of an MCA executive.  She was told her song was selling too well, and MCA wanted to pull it!

Understandably confused, she listened as this man said the airplay and attention she was getting with “I Did” was cutting into what the other four artists could potentially make (with their songs not being heard as much on-air)!  This lack of airplay, in turn, dampened their album sales. 

The honcho then made Patty a deal: if she let MCA yank her single from the market and take it out of radio rotation, they would sign her to an album contract.  She would be allowed to add “I Did” to her début, and then re-release it as a single then.  [The irony, of course, is that MCA’s president had only wanted Patty as a single’s artist to be ash-canned at the first sign of poor sales.  She proved her worth at only her second time at bat.]

Scraping by to Hit the Sky
The same year MCA “corrected” their mistake and made Patty a full-album contract player for the MCA team she and Terry Lovelace finalized their divorce.  Their parting apparently was without acrimony and they remained close.

Her career kicked into overdrive and she went on to huge successes.  In the late 1980s she was featured on many other artists’ records, and played live with some of Country’s greats.  She was inducted as a full-fledged member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1988.

In February 1989, she and MCA producer, Emory Gordy, Jr., secretly married.  [Because Patty’s first two LPs did not sell as well as expected, despite her extremely strong showing live, Gordy was replaced by A&R man Tony Brown for her third album, 1988’s Honky Tonk Angel.  This went on to become a platinum seller and spawned five Top 10 singles—half of its tracks!—two of which hit Number 1, “Chains” and “Timber, I’m Falling in Love”.]

Chains

Though under no directives by MCA to not make their marriage public the couple decided to keep it quiet for awhile out of concerns for Patty’s ex-husband, Terry.  According to Patty he still had strong feelings for her and had hoped for reconciliation over the years.  [When finally made public it is unknown what Terry’s reaction was.]

Also in 1989, the newlywed was named “Favorite New Country Artist” at the American Music Awards. 

Roger Ramey had been functioning as Patty’s manager from the start.  Emory and she, however, felt MCA weren’t promoting her material as much as other female artists on their roster, and changes were in the wind.  After recording Up Against My Heart (1991, with Emory co-producing it with Tony Brown) Patty and Emory felt a move was in order, and Roger was removed as Patty’s manager.

Her new handler believed a label change might be better for Patty, too.  He worked out an agreement in 1992 with MCA to get her out of her contract while still letting her (as invited) to record on other MCA artists’ records. 

And as luck would have it, Epic Records (a division of Sony) wanted her.

Setback?
Epic needed Patty Loveless product to hit the streets as soon as possible, and she was eager to get started.  In her first studio sessions, however, her singing seemed wan. 

Over the past couple of years her voice had seemed “off” somehow.  [It had lost its punch as noted by her husband and some others who worked closely with her; this was most noticeable live.]  She had experienced some throat pain; an exam revealed a splotch on one of her vocal cords.  A protocol of steroids was set up to keep her voice in shape.

By the time of her starting with Epic in 1992, her voice was strained.  She had some upcoming performances and TV appearances scheduled, but she decided to see a doctor again before jumping in.  A large blood vessel, much inflamed and far larger than the earlier “red spot”, was noted.  With this information in hand, Patty went ahead and did the one appearance she felt she could do (on a TV special).  All upcoming performances were canceled, and she underwent surgery in October 1992.

She was out of commission for about nine weeks, unable to speak, let alone sing.  Communications between her and husband Emory were via Post-It notes mostly, though he also taught her some Morse code.  [A quirky side-note to the Morse code training: because of it, Patty developed an interest in HAM radio and became a licensed operator, though reportedly her license is now lapsed.]

Patty’s voice changed after she recovered.  Originally pitched a bit higher, it was now more resonant, deeper, and sounded gutsier.  Her bad luck in having surgery turned into something good after all.  She made her first post-surgery appearance on a Grand Ole Opry stage, scheduled on her 36th birthday.

Beyond
Her re-entry into Epic’s studios meant re-working whatever had been done before her operation.  This time the tracks came out very strong, with presence.  Epic promoted her heavily and her first single from her new album hit Number One.  Her next studio disc for Epic spawned four Top 10 singles.

Dottie, Patty’s sister who had spurred her to take a sincere interest in music, died in June 1996.  A little over a month later, husband Emory took deathly ill with a respiratory problem; Patty took time off, canceling tour dates, to tend to him after his lengthy hospital stay.  When Emory recovered the couple built a home in Georgia.

Neo-traditionalists, like Patty, were losing commercial favor over the newer, more heavily processed, made-for-video vixens (like Faith Hill and Shania Twain).  Patty’s later discs with Epic sold progressively fewer copies.  But instead of caving into what she perceived as a trend one of her more interesting outings was Mountain Soul (2011), a bluegrass-steeped record that made no attempts at being “commercial” whatsoever.  [And it is to Epic’s credit they let her do this record.]  Despite its less-than-radio-friendly arrangements it sold well enough and tended to vindicate Patty’s belief that good music could be made without pandering to fads or “flavors of the month”.

Rise Up Lazarus

(from "Mountain Soul")

Epic Records’ Nashville division was in financial trouble.  In 2005, after she had recorded her latest offering for the label, Dreamin’ My Dream, Epic shut down its Nashville operation.

Patty Loveless on stage (2007)
  Patty was on her own to set up shop elsewhere.  [Epic’s closure had nothing to do with Patty or her diminishing sales.]  

She sang on recorded duets with Bob Seger in 2006; she also did a duet with Vince Gill that year (she had dueted with him in 1998 as well).  Her mother died shortly after these outings as did her mother-in-law.  Patty took some time to grieve, and then decided to take it easy for awhile. 

In 2008 she featured on a George Strait track and one for Jimmy Wayne.  She signed a contract with Saguaro Road Records (in Nashville, a division of Time-Life).  This company allows her the freedom to do as she pleases; her first effort for them was Sleepless Nights, a tribute disc that was nominated for a Grammy Award.  Her most recent full length recording for the label is Mountain Soul II and is yet another return to the most basic sounds of Country.

Track Record
Patty is fun.  In interviews she can be alternately self-effacing, corny, gregarious, or serious.

While her recorded music is very good, it does not capture her true stage presence in her live shows.  She is very charismatic, and a great entertainer.  She never panders to her audiences, and regardless of what set list she chooses for that particular performance (or which encores she wants to do) she gives a lot for the price of a ticket.  She surrounds herself with crack bands that have fun on-stage as well; they vamp with her and trade little asides.  In short, her live shows are truly wonderful.

She has scaled back on touring, but still likes to play what are called “soft-ticket” venues (smaller auditoriums and halls versus the bigger stadium shows).  This isn’t because she cannot attract a stadium-sized crowd (she can); it is because she likes the closer confines, and she enjoys the quieter pace of staying home with the occasional show (versus the rigors of the road).

In these smaller venues everyone can see her well from any seat in the house.  These shows (like the ones she does often in Renfro Valley, Kentucky) bring her music to her fans, fans that maybe cannot catch her in a bigger market such as Indianapolis or Nashville.

Patty Loveless is a bit over 5’6” tall, and gorgeous.  While not terribly important, she dyes her hair on occasion: red, strawberry blond, or honey blond as the mood strikes. Her eyes are hazel.  And she is related to Country great Loretta Lynn (and by default, Loretta’s sister, Crystal Gayle).

More spectacular, though, is her stats in her career.

She has garnered awards across many “academies” and music institutions.  In addition to her recognition by the Grand Ole Opry and the American Music Awards (in 1988 and 1989, respectively), the Academy of Country Music named her “Top Female Vocalist” in 1996 and 1997.  

The Country Music Association (CMA) gave 1995’s When Fallen Angels Fly (on Epic Records) its “Album of the Year” award.  The CMA further recognized Patty with “Female Vocalist of the Year” (1996) and “Vocal Event of the Year” (1998, for a turn she did on George Jones’ “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”).

The Grammy Awards gave “Best Country Collaboration with Vocals” (co-winner credit for 1998’s “Same Old Train”, various artists) and “Best Bluegrass Album” (for 2011’s Mountain

Patty Loveless (2010; detail)
Soul II).

Patty was inducted into music halls of fame in Georgia (2005) and Kentucky (2011).

She’s made fourteen studio albums, eight compilations, twenty-seven music videos, a tribute disc, and a set of Christmas music.  She has released 49 singles.  Her recordings have sold in the millions; she has had several Number Ones, favorite music videos, and multiple gold and platinum recordings.

These days, Patty lives quietly in Dallas, Georgia (a community roughly 30 miles northwest of Atlanta), with her husband Emory.  She also works on behalf of a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) awareness group (in the wake of Emory’s respiratory issue that raised its ugly head back in 1996).

And despite her quote that opens this article, Patty is one of the more perfect singers out there in Country music!

***

Mountain Soul II
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Comments

Sep 11, 2014 1:33pm
Marlando
Hi Vic--Been awhile since I've seen one of your articles but as always you've done your homework and do a wiz of a job writing. Got to give you two giant thumbs and a rating for
another fine piece of work. PS. As a country fan, I really enjoyed the info.
Sep 11, 2014 1:33pm
Marlando
Hi Vic--Been awhile since I've seen one of your articles but as always you've done your homework and do a wiz of a job writing. Got to give you two giant thumbs and a rating for
another fine piece of work. PS. As a country fan, I really enjoyed the info.
Sep 11, 2014 1:36pm
vicdillinger
This woman may very well be under-appreciated these days, but she IS a huge talent!! Thanks for reading.
Sep 11, 2014 1:53pm
McBob34
Outstanding Vic. Thank you for the effort, I think I'll go buy some music.
Sep 11, 2014 2:22pm
vicdillinger
If you're gonna invest, I'm thinking the "Mountain Soul" discs (I & II) would be the most killer of her oeuvre. As I told you in your article I've seen her live (as you have, so you know just how great she really is). Thanks for checking her out (and letting me "steal" her from you).
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Bibliography

  1. "Patty Loveless." biography.com. 9/09/2014 <Web >
  2. "Patty Loveless." en.wikipedia.org. 8/09/2014 <Web >
  3. "About Patty." patty-loveless.net. 9/09/2014 <Web >
  4. "Porter Wagoner." en.wikipedia.org. 10/09/2014 <Web >
  5. "Patty Loveless Biography." imdb.com. 10/09/2014 <Web >

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