You might call singer Patty Loveless the Ralph Nader of country music--always looking out for the consumer.
"I am real choosy about songs," Loveless said by phone last week from Nashville, where she was waiting to rehearse with Vince Gill to sing at the Country Music Assn.'s annual awards show.
"The fact is CDs are so expensive these days, if you go out and buy an album and find maybe only two good cuts, that's disappointing. I'm still a record buyer myself. So I try to give them at least eight good songs on an album. I think songwriters respect that and maybe it makes them work a little harder."
Over the course of five albums, Loveless has drawn from a wider range of writers than many contemporary country hit makers, tapping such well-established Nashville writers as Paul Kennerley, Kostas and Hank DeVito, along with mavericks including Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams.
That pickiness, however, sometimes works against Patty Loveless the songwriter. Loveless, who plays tonight at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana, said she subjects her own compositions to the same scrutiny every other song gets before she decides what to record. So while her 1987 debut album included two of her own numbers, there are no Patty Loveless tunes on either her new "Up Against My Heart" album or its 1990 predecessor, "On Down the Line."
"I'm real critical of my own writing, so when it comes time to make a Patty Loveless album, that doesn't automatically mean my songs will be on it," the 34-year-old Pikeville, Ky., native said.
Another reason, though, is that constant touring has left her with little time to focus on writing. "Eventually, I'll discipline myself enough to get back to writing again."
In fact, it was her writing that brought her to Nashville in the first place more than two decades ago. Then she was Patty Ramey, and with her older brother, Roger, she arrived with about 30 songs and the yearning to be a professional songwriter.
That trip didn't produce a recording contract, but she met some influential musicians, including Porter Wagoner. Those introductions, in turn, helped her land a job singing with the Wilburn Brothers--she took over the spot in their traveling show previously handled by Loretta Lynn--and a slot as a staff songwriter for a Nashville publishing house.
It wasn't, however, until the mid 1980s that she finally landed a deal as a recording artist. Since her first single, "Lonely Days, Lonely Nights" in 1985, she's become one of a comparatively small number of women singers to regularly inhabit country Top 10 charts otherwise dominated by Garths, Clints, Alans, Georges, Randys and other Y-chromosomal names.
"Country is pretty much a man's world," she said. "But I'm glad to be a female singer who is living in it. I just accept it. I'm proud of what my music is doing.
"A lot of female artists feel like they have to sing to women because women are the record buyers in country today. But I like to find songs both male and female fans can relate to. One reason I chose 'That Kind of Girl' for the new album is because the woman in it is speaking to men the way I think women want to speak to men. And 'Don't Toss Us Away' is a unisex song--I think that message (about fighting for a relationship rather than giving up on it) can go either way. So I'll get men who come up to me and say 'I don't normally buy country records, but I did buy that one.' I feel good that my music can cater to both sexes."
Loveless doesn't claim to be a pioneer in the sense of Lynn, a fellow coal miner's daughter who voiced numerous women's and social issues within the confines of a three-minute country single, or Emmylou Harris, who has long championed musical integrity over commercialism and helped expand musical boundaries.
On her latest album, however, she's broadened the scope of her vocals to span a typically sassy, sexy "Jealous Bone" to an unexpectedly big-throated, big-hearted Patsy Cline turn on a classic bit of country fatalism, "Can't Stop Myself From Loving You."
"I think people are beginning to appreciate Patty Loveless as a singer," she said. "Different singers can look at a song with a whole different perspective. When a singer is putting songs out, they are saying something about themselves, or about someone else that they know.
"Many people, especially women, have told me--almost with tears in their eyes--that a song like 'Don't Toss Us Away,' brought them through a whole lot, and that's a really good feeling."
For Loveless, that ability isn't so much a gift she's giving to audiences as it is a chance to pass along the same things that touched her as a listener.
"For me, it was Linda Ronstadt, especially an album such as 'Hasten Down the Wind' (from 1976). That album didn't produce a whole lot of singles, but it reached inside and pulled emotions out of you.
"That's what I'd like my music to do for other people--pull that emotion out of them."