As a small girl, Patty Loveless can remember watching her coal miner father return home from his job deep underground so blackened he had to scrub the soot from his pores with laundry detergent and boiling water.
Those gritty memories of growing up in a humble white-framed house with seven brothers and sisters in Pikeville, Ky., have long provided the bedrock for Ms. Loveless's soulful, heartfelt sound.
With her traditional roots and love for country music, Loveless has recorded one of the year's most thoughtful, and in many ways, uplifting albums. "Long Stretch of Lonesome," her ninth and latest recording, establishes a sense of graceful passage through some of life's most difficult shared experiences, from relationships to grief.
"Too Many Memories" a song of reflection, takes Loveless back to her days in Pikeville.
"When I look back at that song, there are some really good memories. When I look back on it, maybe my family didn't have as much, but my dad always paid his bills and my parents always took great care of their kids," she says after a recent concert at the Wolf Trap Filene Center in northern Virginia.
The last song on the new CD, "Where I'm Bound," updates those family memories in a bittersweet reflection. It's a rich and dignified song of hope that reflects the age-old mystery of death. It is also a source of healing for her in the loss of her sister this past July.
"A lot of these songs give people hope," she says. "It helps me deal with situations in life. For some reason a lot of songs landed in my lap that tended to lean toward experiences I have been going through."
Crossing gender lines
Relations between the sexes is another theme of the new album. "That's Exactly What I Mean" is an accounting of the desire to reach across gender lines and communicate.
"It's happening to a lot of my female friends. They aren't writing about being at home; they are writing about what its like to be a woman in this world.
"For a man it can almost be like picking up a woman's magazine and learning how a woman feels," she says.
With more women in the work-force today, and with women experiencing the same pressures as men, Loveless believes husbands and men feel neglected and misunderstood much the same way women do.
"Lyrically, I want these songs to cater to them [men] too," she explains. "I can't stand male-bashing songs."
A long career
Loveless's latest album comes at a high point in her long musical career.
She made her debut when she was 12 in a live performance that made her so nervous that one leg shook. Fortunately, this temporary affliction passed, and she began achieving a respected place in country music. She was inducted into the Grand Old Opry in 1988 and has had a string of No. 1 songs and albums since.
The Academy of Country Music has named her Top Female Vocalist for the past two years. The Country Music Association named her Top Female Vocalist last year and nominated her for the award this year (it went instead to Trisha Yearwood). Her previous album "Trouble With the Truth" was also nominated for a Grammy.
As a prolific video artist, Loveless has made 16 country music videos; 10 of them have been No. 1 hits on Country Music Television, which this fall ran a five-part documentary on the singer.
Despite the fame and success that Loveless has enjoyed over the years, she is still able to lead a relatively unbothered life in Nashville when not on the road.
"From time to time, I run into fans at the grocery store. I don't want them to treat me like a star.... What makes me uncomfortable is when they look at me like Patty, the person up on stage."
At the appearance earlier this year at Wolf Trap, Loveless enthusiastically greeted an endless line of fans backstage despite a demanding performance in mind-bending heat and humidity.
But when the tables are turned, the backstage grip and grin is not something Loveless feels comfortable forcing other performers to do. So emphatic is she about wanting fellow artists to have their privacy, she recently went to a Tina Turner concert and left without shaking hands.
"I told the people I was with that I didn't want to bother her. I was backstage and just happened to be there when she was walking to her dressing room. I saw her. That was all I needed," she says.
"Besides," she explains, "sometimes it's good not to meet someone. It takes away from the mystique."
Latest Work Explores Relationships, Grief
Patty Loveless - Long Stretch of Lonesome (Epic): Despite the album's substantial treatment of life's heaviest episodes, this collection is not a downer. It is tent-poled throughout with up-tempo tunes like "The Party Ain't Over Yet" and "High on Love" that maintain a lively pace. Songs like "Long Stretch of Lonesome" give the CD the right amount of substance. The final cut "Where I'm Bound," destined to be a classic in the Loveless collection, is a moving, enlightening song that could be sung by a church choir. "Can you hear it cross the valley/ can you hear that mournful sound?/ I'm riding rails of silver, going to where I'm bound." The ninth release by Loveless is a display of her musical evolution and exploration of meaningful themes - from relationships to an awareness of life.