Patty Loveless In Her Own Opry-Loving Words: ‘I Felt Like My Chest Was In Flames’

Scott Gries / Getty Images
Patty Loveless performing onstage at the Opry House in 2003.

Patty Loveless was a kid when she and her older brother filled in for Jean Sheppard at a package show at Louisville Gardens. With a hard mountain tenor that could cut into the rock, the Ramey Kids played a few hits, then closed with Patty’s “Sounds of Loneliness.” Doyle Wilburn, half of one of country’s biggest duos, got his brother off the bus to listen.

Wilburn had no idea she would be a 1988 Opry inductee, let alone only the second woman to win the Country Music Association’s Album of the Year for 1995’s When Fallen Angels Fly, win Grammys for Best Bluegrass Recording, give Lucinda Williams her first cut, “The Night’s Too Long,” champion iconic writers like Kostas, Matraca Berg, Steve Earle and Jim Lauderdale before anyone else or be George Jones’ favorite duet partner, but he knew talent.  
I was hangin’ out backstage at the Opry when I was 14 as Porter (Wagoner) and Dolly (Parton)’s guest. We’d come down to Nashville to try to meet with Doyle Wilburn, and walked into Sure-Fire Music, when you could just do that. The receptionist told us they were out of town, so we walked over to Porter and Dolly’s company. Porter saw us. I’m a 14-year-old kid being dragged around by her brother, and he asked if I’d like to play something. So I played “Sounds of Loneliness” and “I Did,” and he fell in love. He said, “We’re doing a TV taping. Do you wanna come hear Dolly?” I was pretty much in honky tonk heaven, because she was Dolly Parton! He took us down to the studio, asked if we’d like to stay for the Opry the next night at the Ryman. He paid for our hotel room and our bus tickets home…

Courtesy Patty Loveless
Patty Loveless playing her first Opry show at the wee age of 14 circa 1971.

For a girl whose family had moved from a holler to Louisville to get her father treatment for his black lung disease, this was high cotton. Parton liked the shy songwriter with the big voice, even inviting Patty to come to the Ryman when she and Wagoner won CMA Duo of the Year in 1971. Talented but sheltered, she took to this other world with passion.
I was always hanging out backstage at the Ryman. There was only one dressing room where everybody got together to rehearse and get ready. The girls didn’t even have a dressing room. I remember going to the restroom with Dolly. She’d touch up her makeup in the restroom, and I’d stand there and study her. I picked up some of her tricks! What she’d do with her eyeliner, she would draw these little bitty thin lines between her lower eyelashes – and it really worked. Like a lot of girls and women, I was so into Dolly. She was a writer, that voice and so glamorous to me. I loved the fact she didn’t have to spend all this time doing her hair. She’d just throw a wig on, and go! So, I even got some wigs.
Though she didn’t know it yet, Patty Ramey was part cousin to Loretta Lynn. That mountain caw from somewhere deep inside resonated with the Wilburns, who signed her to a publishing deal, put her on their package shows and figured they could groom their next Loretta.
I was 15, 16 and I’d go out and perform by myself, then they’d bring me on like Loretta to sing the duets. Doyle was trying to mold me. He’s thinking, “Here’s a girl from Kentucky – and she’s got that voice.” I probably did ”Muleskinner Blues,” that Dolly had out. I was doing a Connie Smith song, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA” – Doyle loved that song. And I was doing one of mine, “I Did.” I played shows with them everywhere, which is how I got to play the Opry the first time. The country acts would all play Opryland, the amusement park back then. But the Wilburn Brothers were doing a 3 p.m. matinee at the Opry. I was 16. I felt like my chest was in flames, because I was so nervous. I had this thing about tapping my leg when I sing, and I was tapping away. But I got to get up and sing those songs.And it’s still a weird feeling when you play there… 
And then there was Tootsies…

Country Royalty:
Chris Hollo / Courtesy Grand OIe Opry
– Country Royalty:
Loretta Lynn, Patty Loveless and Connie Smith backstage at the Grand Ole Opry June 15, 2013, celebrating Patty’s 25th Anniversary as an Opry member.
Even at the Ryman, they’d all go over to Tootsies and take breaks. At 16, I walked across the alley into Tootsies. Just walked right in. And I was shy, my brother Roger used to have to almost shove me out onstage. But, you wanted to be there. One time, we were walking around Broadway, close to the Ernest Tubb Record Shoppe, and that’s when Doyle went, “Hey, Jimmy!” I looked around, and it was James Brown. They were so friendly and communicated with each other back then… Music people were all about the music. I knew when I was with Doyle you’d never know what or who you’d run into. I was hanging out with Doyle ‘cause we were doing “The Midnight Jamboree,” to perform after the Ryman. Doyle was always dragging me, and that taught me as much about music and people as anything. James Brown had a real appreciation for country music, just like we had such an appreciation for soul and rock & roll. Fats Domino was on the Wilburn Brothers TV show.  In ’73, ’74, the town was hopping – and there was music everywhere.
Roger never stopped believing in his sister’s talent. Hustling around Music Row, he bluffed his way into office of the new A&R head at MCA. Tony Brown told him he’d listen to one song, one. Playing “I Did” for the veteran of both Elvis Presley’s and Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, the North Carolina-born executive knew the mountain tones can’t be faked. A decade after she explored Music City with the Wilburns, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless had a record deal in the making. Like Randy Travis, she was signed to a singles deal. Like Randy Travis, that deal converted to an album contract quickly. Also, how much the past circled into her present.

Patty Loveless
Courtesy Patty Loveless
– Patty Loveless
with the Wilburn Brothers Virgil and Teddy.

Lo and behold, the first time I got to perform on the Opry – on my own – was after I got my deal with MCA. My single “I Did” was coming out, so I got to sing it again in 1986. Tony and Emory (Gordy, also a Presley vet) knew I had some Ralph Stanley in my voice. And when you think about Elvis, he was listening to the blues and country – and he became the king of rock & roll. But really with Elvis, it’s just about how much alike these two things are. I was raised on this music: the Ernest Tubb Show, back in Elkhorn, Kentucky and seeing Willie Nelson coming out with a suit, real clean cut. Waylon Jennings coming out on Porter Wagoner’s show, very clean cut. In high school, I had a geography teacher and she knew I did music; she was so excited to be going to see John Prine. So I started checking him out.
Cutting unlikely material – George Jones’ remakes, songs by Lone Justice and unknowns named Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett – her voice, sound and coal miner’s daughter back story caught people’s attention. Just two years later, during 1988’s Fan Fair, Patty Loveless became the 165th person inducted since 1925.

It was exciting for me! It was a dream – but looking back – I was so in the moment… It always feels exciting to me, and I do get a little bit nervous. But I have a bit more confidence now, because I know I have the support of my peers. I remember Vince saying, “Going out there is like having a conversation…” And it is. To be able to communicate to an audience, even one person, is such a great feeling. The Opry audience you just know will support you and understand. That matters.
Over the course of 32 years, Loveless has shared the stage with many of country’s and bluegrass’ top performers. But it’s the ones who shaped her that stand out.

Tootsie Bess
– Tootsie Bess
at her Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge” which had a back door that faced Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry. Pictured here in 1974.
The performance with Dolly and Porter at Porter’s 50th Celebration felt like I’d come full circle. When I was a kid at the Ryman, they took me with them, let me stay there with Dolly sitting backstage, just plucking away on a song that she wrote. People’d be socializing, and they were all so welcoming. I felt like they raised me all those years. Their music and their support, no matter what I was doing or what was going on. That’s a lot of support, so to be there with them and for them? That was so strong. And with the re-opening of the Ryman, I performed with Loretta Lynn. We did “You Ain’t Woman Enough” as a duet. The first time I met Loretta, I was 11 years old and she was doing a Coal Miner’s Benefit in Louisville. She was walking through the crowd, and my brother Roger pushed me towards her. Later, I remember telling her when I met her, “Your hands were so cold,” and she said, “Yes, when I get excited, my hands get cold.” I knew exactly what she meant.There were so many artists who were there. It was a historic night! Even Kitty Wells was there. We were all there like it used to be, all these artists coming together…
For Loveless, who primarily lives in Georgia with her husband/producer Emory Gordy, the Opry remains as powerful to her today as when she was a child. Though COVID has kept her home, she yearns to get back to the Circle.

I listened as such a young girl, put up on the kitchen table, while my Mom was mopping the floor. We’d be listening to the Opry. That music touched me; it was always something important to my family. My Mom’s youngest sister always wanted to be on the Opry, and she was so proud when I became a member.

Family Celebration:
– Family Celebration:
Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless at the Opry in 2007 celebrating Wagoner’s 50th year with the Opry.

It’s always a feeling of “Oh, wow!” when you get there. It’s like going home. Everybody wants to get together and visit, catch up, talk about music. Because of COVID, I’ve not really been able to do it, and I miss it.  

The last time I played it, I was so emotional. April 2018, I remember, because I’d not seen my brother Roger in a long time. 
Some friends were going to bring him, he was in a wheelchair, and this was a place he’d never gotten to play. And that’s the thing about the Opry: the audience always knows when you’re going through something. They feel it, and they support you. That’s the thing about the Opry. There are changes, but also an appreciation of the ones who began the changes. When I was 15, 16, I saw it – and when I came back, I saw it again. Maybe they’d grown their hair out, maybe they’re grayer, but it’s doesn’t matter, they appreciate the younger artists coming up. And those younger artists, who’re out there, they’re all about respecting the many years and the many, many artists who’ve made the Opry what it is.