The Country Music Association (CMA) Awards were celebrated in true country style in Nashville on November 8, with somewhat predictable winners and entertainers – except for one gob-smacking performance which must rate among the great live acts in the 56 years of the annual hootenanny.
It featured the CMA Male Vocalist of the Year Chris Stapleton, which is not surprising, but the unexpected came when he introduced the largely-retired Patty Loveless to join him on the Appalachian classic “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.”
And it was a sensational performance which soon had the celebrity-cluttered audience on its feet!
Some critics described the duo’s act as a “rare performance.” It wasn’t quite. For while Loveless mostly retired from both recording and performing 13 years ago, her CMA gig with Stapleton was a repeat of their appearance at the Kentucky Rising benefit concert in Lexington less than one month earlier.
What made the CMA live act even more notable was that the pair were joined onstage by prolific singer-songwriter Darrell Scott playing Dobro. For it was Scott who penned “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” – now considered a Kentucky anthem on the chequered history of coal mining in the southern state.
Such big country names as Brad Paisley, Kathy Mattea and Dave Alvin have recorded the song over the years, but it was Patty’s alt country version on her majestic 2001 album Mountain Soul that stands shoulders above them all. Her cover was made even more poignant as Loveless herself is the daughter of a Kentucky miner who died of pneumoconiosis, better known as coal-worker’s black lung disease.
She and Stapleton’s collaboration at the awards was no doubt inspired by their Lexington appearance and an opportunity to further draw attention to the victims of the flash flooding which killed 40 people in Eastern Kentucky last July.
But Loveless certainly upped the ante in Nashville. Her haunting, heart-felt opening – almost acapella – was stunning. In the deep dark hills of Eastern Kentucky/That’s the place where I trace my bloodlines. And when the gutsy Stapleton came to the party, the song set the Bridgestone Arena alight - helped by striking harmony vocals from wife Morgane Stapleton who had also joined the pair at the Lexington gig.
Loveless, of course, is no stranger to the CMA Awards. She has bagged a host of awards, including successive Female Vocalist of the Year titles in 1995-96. But her mainstream commercial country career took an abrupt turn in 2001 when, on her 11th album, she recorded the bluegrass-fused, very Americana Mountain Soul which included duets with Travis Tritt and backing vocals from Jon Randall and Ricky Skaggs.
And it was the inclusion of the inspiring Darrell Scott song which stamped class on the album. Scott had been visiting Harlan County, Kentucky, to trace family history when he saw the phrase “you’ll never leave Harlan alive” etched into a tombstone. It inspired to him write the so-named song in 1997 for his debut album Aloha from Nashville.
Four years later he would play banjo on the Loveless rendition. He later recounted how she appeared reluctant to record the song until the album’s producer Emory Gordy Jr – Patty’s husband – placed a photo of her miner father in the studio and told her to sing the song to her Dad, who died when she was 11. In 2002, her version was nominated for Song of the Year at the International Bluegrass Music Awards.
There would be a follow-up album, Mountain Soul 11 in 2009. It would be her 16th and last studio album for it marked a hiatus from both recording and performing, though she has occasionally contributed to other artists’ albums.
So, her recorded-appearances with Stapleton at Kentucky Rising and the CMA Awards were a joy to behold.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation