The Unbroken Circle: Patty Loveless – “Timber I’m Falling in Love” (1989)

It’s tough to know how to properly characterize Patty Loveless’ music, and that’s meant to be taken as a compliment. She broke through with a cover of George Jones’ 1960 hit “If My Heart Had Windows” but is best described as an artist of her era – a late-’80s golden age that birthed a plethora of stylistically different newcomers who aimed to offer a fresh take on old sounds … or maybe even create their own. At a glance, it’d be easy to categorize her within the same camp as the neotraditionalists. But there was something a bit more fresh and modern about her version of that – friend and colleague Kevin Coyne of Country Universe once called her music “progressive traditional country music,” and I think that’s a fitting description. She wasn’t as experimental as contemporaries such as Steve Earle or k.d. lang, nor was she as roots-driven as, say, Kathy Mattea or Nanci Griffith.

No, if anything, Loveless has always just been purely country to me without any added qualifiers, and has always captured so much of what I love about the genre: an honest conviction and emotion that cuts through with vibrancy no matter whether she’s singing a revealing ballad like “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye,” or having a bit of mischievous fun on an upbeat cut. She’s even described herself as a mixture of Linda Ronstadt, Loretta Lynn, and Ralph Stanley. She was born Patricia Ramey in the Appalachian town of Pikeville, Kentucky, and grew up signing with her brother. She married and sang pop and rock music around Charlotte, North Carolina, for the better part of a decade, until she divorced and moved to Nashville in 1985.

Granted, that’s the shortened version of the story. In fact, the self-made Lynn comparison ran deeper than anyone could have imagined. She claimed Lynn as a distant cousin, and became affiliated with the Wilburn Brothers after Lynn left their road show. She stayed away from Nashville initially because she didn’t want to use her familial connection as an “in,” and instead married Wilburn drummer Terry Lovelace and settled in Charlotte for a time. Eventually, though, Nashville came calling for her – and at just the right time, too, given that Loveless was set on giving up performing altogether and only went at a country music career due to the rising neotraditional movement giving way to a sound that suited her.

So, she recorded a demo, and within two weeks signed to MCA Records. It would take three more years, however, until that fortuitous Jones cover gave way to a string of more hits; it would then take two more for her to finally attain a No. 1 hit.

And really, despite that No. 1 single being a silly but undeniably catchy ditty, its success meant a lot for both Loveless and the writer behind it. It was the first taste of success for songwriter Kostas Lazarides, a Greek immigrant who officially penned songs using only his first name. He was discovered by producer Tony Brown while looking for material for Loveless’ Honky Tonk Angel album, and, thanks in part to the success of “Timber,” went on to become one of country music’s most ubiquitous writers of the ’90s – the Harlan Howard of the decade, if you will (a comparison that would come full circle early on, given that both writers penned Loveless’ follow-up hit “The Lonely Side of Love” for the same album). Loveless found even further success from Kostas’ “Blame It On Your Heart,” and Kostas himself eventually found success writing hits for Dwight Yoakam, The Mavericks, McBride & the Ride, and Kelly Willis, among many others.

As for Loveless, while her success varied inconsistently due to label changes and vocal cord surgery in 1992, she endured nevertheless to create one of the strongest and most consistent discographies in country music history, thanks in part to hit albums like Honky Tonk Angel and When Fallen Angels Fly. Along the way she continued to champion overlooked writers that would come to define the decade, like Gretchen Peters, Lucinda Williams, and Kim Richey. And when the hits eventually became harder to come by in the mid-’90s, she followed her own artistic muse, releasing a single featuring a George Jones harmony vocal in “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me” at a time when veteran artists found it difficult to attain radio success. And by 2001, she was more content recording passion projects like the homespun Mountain Soul, adding to her legacy and finding success on her own terms, just as she had always done.

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