Patty Loveless pegged her artistic position perfectly in "I'm That Kind of Girl," the opening song of her concert Sunday at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza: "I ain't the woman in red, I ain't the girl next door, but if somewhere in the middle's what you're lookin' for. . . ."
That's always what they're lookin' for in country music, where any boat-rockin' has to be done carefully. Over an eight-year recording career, Loveless has become a regular on the charts with a series of catchy, novelty-edged tunes (starting with "Timber I'm Falling in Love") and emotive ballads.
But Loveless has never joined Nashville's front ranks with Reba, Wynonna, Trisha and other flashy, high-profile personalities, so it was a surprise when her "When Fallen Angels Fly" was named best album in the Country Music Assn. Awards earlier this month.
It was an upset worth some cheering, not only because Loveless beat out four of country's big boys (John Michael Montgomery, George Strait, Vince Gill and Alan Jackson), but also because it recognized her consistently keen ear for a song, and her determination to let some deep country roots seep into even the most pop-leaning material.
Loveless' governing principal is taste, a quality that worked both for and against her at Sunday's concert, where it assured a musical balance and purity, but stifled risk and spontaneity.
As a singer, Loveless makes it sound so easy that you don't really notice her formidable technique--her tone is always pure, with a touch of salty tang, and she can make fast, tricky phrases sound utterly natural.
That naturalism is what makes her reading of "How Can I Help You Say Goodbye," last year's ballad hit, work so well. In Sunday's performance, she applied an emotional directness to the life-spanning tale while neutralizing its sentimentality.
But her restraint often comes off as restriction, and Loveless can seem timid about cutting loose musically and revealing herself emotionally. Backed by an eight-member band, the Kentucky-born singer ranged easily from the hard-core honky-tonk balladry of "If My Heart Had Windows" to the Appalachian-flavored "A Handful of Dust" to such engaging trifles as the recent hit "I Try to Think About Elvis."
Each song was strong on its own terms, but the show didn't take on a life of its own, and the selections never added up to establish a point of view about music and about life. She may be that kind of girl, but there's no reason she should remain that kind of artist.