Now that twangy, Appalachian-rooted singers like Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless have effectively been banished from the country-music airwaves, where lowest-common-denominator blandness rules, there's only one thing left for a hillbilly girl to do: put out a bluegrass album. Two years ago, Parton jump-started her singing career with the critically acclaimed The Grass Is Blue, and she followed that one up with the equally appealing Little Sparrow. Loveless, backed by a crack acoustic band, goes the same route with Mountain Soul, a wonderful collection of traditional and contemporary bluegrass songs.
This is familiar territory for Loveless, the youngest daughter of a Kentucky coal miner who moved his family to Louisville after contracting black-lung disease. At least he escaped; the protagonist in "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive," the album's haunting centerpiece, is fated to spend his whole life digging for coal.
"The Boys Are Back in Town," the album's lively opener, is considerably more upbeat; it's the kind of song Flatt & Scruggs might have recorded. From there, Loveless moves on to tear-stained ballads ("The Richest Fool Alive," "Cheap Whiskey"), gospel numbers ("Daniel Prayed," "Rise Up Lazarus," "Two Coats") and traditional folk songs ("Pretty Little Miss," "Soul of Constant Sorrow"). She closes the album with the heart-wrenching "Sounds of Loneliness," which Loveless wrote when she was just a teenager. "Hear the sounds of loneliness," she cries over a brooding fiddle. "Hear the sounds all around/Since you've gone and left me alone/I'll just hear these sounds from now on."
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About the only missteps on Mountain Soul are two duets with mullet-haired Southern rocker Travis Tritt. The fact is, Tritt just isn't much of a singer, and that's painfully obvious when he attempts to harmonize with Loveless. She deserves a singing partner like George Jones. (In fact, one of her best recordings was a 1997 duet with the Possom called "You Don't Seem to Miss Me.")
On Mountain Soul, Loveless sings with a chill-inducing purity that's all but disappeared from country music. No wonder bluegrass is enjoying a renaissance these days: Where else can you still hear honest, sometimes scary songs about pain, suffering, loneliness and drinking?