Patty Loveless: “Sleepless Nights”

There’s not a single new tune on the new Patty Loveless album, Sleepless Nights, and in fact, not many of them could even be considered rare; these are, by and large, tried and true standards, songs by Hank Sr., Porter and Dolly, Ray Price and George Jones. In other words, if you haven’t heard at least a handful of these tunes before, it must be because you’ve never listened to country music in the first place. To call them well-known would be drastically understating the matter– these are the very building blocks on which the history of country music stands. So why, one might ask, would we need yet another album that brings these familiar numbers together? Why, in 2008, do we really need still another country music history lesson, still another album to mythologize the songs we all know by heart already?

Fair question, but Loveless isn’t phased by it. In fact, the album almost feels like she’s daring us to ask the question, and her answer is impossible to miss: Why not? Indeed, Loveless makes a compelling case that we’ve never needed an album like this one more than we do now, in 2008, when country music is branching off in so many different directions and absorbing so many other pop idioms that it’s simultaneously experiencing a renaissance and an identity crisis, expanding its borders even as it loses sight of its heart. But Patty Loveless won’t stand by and let that happen; on Sleepless Nights, she positions herself as the keeper of the old guard, a veteran country singer who remembers the music’s roots and refuses to lose sight of them.

And surely there’s no one better qualified for the job. Loveless has clearly learned a lot from classic country music; simply put, she’s one of the finest, most soulful vocalists the genre has ever produced, and she’s demonstrated on album after album that no one’s better at breathing new life and vitality into traditional country forms. So naturally, an album like this is perfect for her, because it allows her to bask in the music she loves and show us that these songs aren’t nearly as tired as we may have thought they were– on the contrary, they’re full of heart and passion, energy and life, and, in the hands of a pro like Loveless, they’re just about as sublime as music gets.

Indeed, this record isn’t just Loveless’ attempt to revitalize traditional country sounds; actually, it were these traditional country songs that revitalized Loveless, offering her comfort during a season of loss and, ultimately, inspiring her to return to recording after a brief hiatus. Her return to the spotlight is just as welcome as the return of these familiar songs, as she’s never sounded better than she does here– obviously, these songs worked their magic on her, and now she returns the favor by making a classic country album that isn’t academic or trite, but heartfelt, deeply felt and emotional, unabashedly nostalgic but very much of the moment.

In fact, the nostalgia is a big part of what makes the album so effective, as Loveless reminds us that country music, like jazz and blues, was essentially born out of suffering. And so, the songs she chooses here are all songs about loneliness, about love gone wrong and the emptiness it leaves behind. They’re melancholy, sad and romantic, songs that look wistfully to the past even as they tell of the pain and grief of the present. But that hardly makes it a downer, as Loveless is in such fine voice, and these songs are given loving, affectionate treatments by a dynamite backing band, drenched in weeping pedal steel and carried away by gentle two-steeping drumming, with mournful fiddles and boozy barroom pianos coloring in the backdrop. So the album is sad, but it’s a warm, enveloping kind of sadness, the kind of sadness that invites you to sit down for a spell and sing your cares way.

And in doing so, it reminds us of what makes this music so timeless in the first place. This is personal, human music that speaks to universal concerns with simplicity and soul, poetry and profundity that come from how deeply felt and relatable these songs really are. Of course, it takes a lot of skill and craft, a lot of hard work, to make simplicity sound natural and effortless, but Loveless has it in spades. On Sleepless Nights, she may be singing about the blues, but she’s clearly infatuated with these songs, and she’s overjoyed to be singing again. And you’ll be overjoyed, too, just to have her back. Loveless is one of the great treasures of country music, and a voice like hers paired to songs like these is a combination that won’t soon go out of fashion.

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