In the opening moments of the chilling "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive," Patty Loveless sang a capella, her eyes closed and her head thrown back. Her voice carried from the stage of the Lucas Theatre to the back of the balcony, and a thousand shivers went up a thousand spines.
Only a select few singers in country music can pack that sort of emotion into a few words. Loveless, who's been on the short list for most of her 25-year career, can conjure ghosts, breathe life into lost lovers and bring vivid memories to the fore, such is the power of her voice.
The set list for Saturday night's sold out Savannah Music Festival concert was equal parts old-school heartbreak country, high lonesome Appalachian balladeering and high-energy greatest-hits revue.
Backed by a crackerjack seven-piece band, Loveless performed the obligatory radio smashes - "Lovin' All Night," "Here I Am," "Halfway Down," "Blame it on Your Heart" - and each in turn sounded fresh and inspired, as if no time had passed since they were on everyone's lips. As if she hadn't sung them each a thousand times.
It was the show's middle section, however, that demonstrated what a versatile artist this Kentucky-born performer can be. Songs from her two Mountain Soul collections, which focus on acoustic, lyrical story-songs, many of them traditional, were performed with a heady combination of precision and pure, blinding talent.
In the 1980s, Loveless was considered a "neo-traditionalist," meaning she had no interest in the commercial country of the day, and she clearly took her vocal and musical cues from the greats, Jones, Haggard, Frizzell and the like. Elements of bluegrass, gospel country and close-harmony singing crept into her work and made themselves welcome.
She still has few equals. Emmylou Harris, perhaps, has Loveless' musical integrity, but not the powerhouse chops. Reba McEntire is nearly as versatile a vocalist, but she toes the commercial line - and, frankly, she's in the business of being Reba McEntire.
Patty Loveless is timeless. She survived Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks and Gretchen Wilson, and man, she'll be around - and still phenomenal - long after Taylor Swift is back selling clothes at The Gap.
Nods to classic country at Saturday's show included Ray Price's "Crazy Arms" and George Jones' "Why Baby Why"; she also sang "You Don't Seem to Miss Me," her 1998 duet with Jones, with one of her guitarists providing the vocal counterpoint onstage.
Before singing Harlan Howard's "Busted," Loveless explained that although everyone from Johnny Cash to Ray Charles had recorded the song, they had used a revised set of lyrics - it's about a farming family falling apart because the cotton crops are failing.
Not long before he died, Howard gave Loveless his original lyric sheet - "Busted" is actually the story of a coal-mining family enduring unspeakable hardships.
Loveless' own family tree has deep roots in the eastern Kentucky mountains, and so "Busted" became something personal for her.
Show opener Kathy Mattea is from a West Virginia mining family, and so her set - featuring guitar, fiddle and standup bass - focused on her recent Coal album.
Mattea's heartbreaking odes to the dangerous work that miners do included chestnuts by Jean Ritchie and Billy Edd Wheeler. Loveless made an early appearance during Mattea's set, singing a duet on "Blue Diamond Mines."
Mattea, who reminisced about first visiting Savannah on an eighth-grade field trip with her Girl Scout troop, also played a handful of her own hits: "Come From the Heart," "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses" and "Love at the Five and Dime."
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