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By: Patty Loveless

From The Ladies Home Journal, September, 1998

My rise to the top of the country music charts has been full of challenges and heartache--like my songs. Two years ago, I was nominated for Female Vocalist of the Year by both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association (CMA). I had recorded seven number-one hits and four top-selling albums. I was about to turn forty. It should have been the most satisfying time of my life. But I was also in the middle of a major family crisis that would change my life and make me reassess everything I believed in.

Like the story line of a country song, my life has been full of hardships and heartaches that have tested my will and faith. Growing up poor in rural Kentucky, I had to share a bed with two of my six siblings, and often wore my mother's clothes to school. My father, John Ramey, was a coal miner who suffered from black lung disease; my mother, Naomi, was a homemaker. Our family lived off my dad's Social Security and workers' compensation checks. When I was ten, we moved to Louisville so that my father could get better medical treatment. The move was traumatic for me. I was the backward country kid and had a hard time making friends.

The one thing that made me happy was singing. When I was a little girl, my parents would ask me to sing for their friends. I was too shy to perform in front of people, so I used to run into the kitchen and sing as loud as I could so they could hear me out in the living room. As an adolescent, I spent hours listening to Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton, and I liked the way their songs made me happy or tearful. I wanted to affect people that way.

In 1971, when I was fourteen years old, my brother Roger, convinced I had real talent, took me to Nashville. He got us in to see Porter Wagoner, a popular country singer who had his own TV show. Porter introduced me to others in the Grand Ole Opry, including Dolly Parton, who became like a big sister to me. I learned from simply observing her--everything from how she carried herself to how she put on makeup. Then Roger got me an audition with the Wilburn Brothers, a popular band in Nashville, who had just lost Loretta Lynn, their lead singer. I got the job, and spent three years performing with them.

I fell in love with Terry Lovelace, the drummer in the band. We married in 1976 when I was nineteen and Terry was twenty-one. A short time later, Terry and I left the Wilburn Brothers and moved to North Carolina, his home state, where he formed a rock band. It was a wild time. I was singing in Terry's band every night until six A.M., experimenting with drugs and drinking heavily.

I loved Terry, but I learned that the heart can fool you. My father and Terry never really hit it off, and Daddy had warned me about him before we got married. "He'll ruin your life," he said. But I was headstrong and brought up to believe that a woman takes care of her man. In the end, my father was right. By rebelling against my family, and trying to be the "perfect" wife, I had become someone I didn't want to be. Substance abuse didn't help our marriage either. Little by little, Terry and I lost the trust and respect we once shared, until finally the love was lost, too.

But perhaps my biggest regret from that time is not being with my father when he died. He called me in August 1979 and asked me to come home. Money was tight, so I figured I'd save up and visit for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, my dad was in much worse shape than I realized. He died that October at the age of fifty-eight. When I heard the news, I felt so angry that I hadn't been there--and so guilty.

I finally left Terry after ten years (that's when I changed my last name to Loveless). I knew I was headed down the wrong road--life was too short to be abusing drugs and alcohol. Once I put my mind to it, I was able to quit cold turkey, though it wasn't easy. Even tougher was dealing with the shame I felt about my failed marriage.

After being in the rock 'n' roll scene for so long, I was completely out of the country-music loop. I was singing in clubs, and people were requesting songs by country newcomers like Travis Tritt and Vince Gill--people I hadn't even heard of. I wanted to start singing country again, so I went back to Nashville in April 1985 hoping to get a record deal. My brother Roger, who was still my biggest fan, helped me cut a demo tape by May, and in July I was signed by a major record label.

It was that summer that I met Emory Gordy, Jr., a record producer, who is twelve years my senior. We worked together on my debut album and several others after that. Over the next few years, a friendship grew, until I finally realized I was falling in love with him. We married in 1989 in a small chapel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, but agreed to keep our relationship a secret for a year and a half while I established myself as an artist. I didn't want people thinking that I had married Emory just to boost my career. Thankfully, he understood.

In 1991, I learned that I had an aneurysm on one of my vocal cords--a result of so much strain over the years. I needed surgery. At first I tried to ignore the diagnosis, and then to postpone the operation, but my doctors warned that if I put it off any longer I might never sing again. It was frightening--there was the chance that the surgery would alter my voice. But the support I got from my fellow musicians was overwhelming. They made me realize that I truly was loved and cared for. Three months after the operation, I gradually began doing voice exercises, and when I knew my voice would be fine, I was elated. Ultimately, I missed four months on the road, but never lost faith that I would be back.

My career finally took off in 1993 with the platinum-selling album Only What I Feel, featuring my number-one songs "Blame It On Your Heart" and "How Can I Help You Say Goodbye." I spent much of that year touring. I've always loved reaching people with music. I grew up attending the old regular Baptist church, and even though I don't go anymore, I feel as if I'm singing to a congregation every night. A fan once wrote that I was a messenger through my music. I hope that's true.

I certainly know what it's like to find strength in songs. My belief in God has been one kind of therapy; music has been another. It has helped me through the worst pain I've ever known--losing my sister Dottie, who was ten years older than me. She struggled from the age of fifteen on, battling bulimia and anorexia, and later developing diabetes and emphysema. She married, moved to Nashville and divorced, becoming a single mom to two boys. The more successful I became, the sicker Dottie got.

The night two years ago when I won the Academy of Country Music award for Female Vocalist of the Year, Dottie had just had a seven-hour operation to treat a brain aneurysm. I called her hospital room and she told me she couldn't keep her eyes open long enough to watch the show. Three months later, her emphysema getting worse, Dottle was readmitted to the hospital. I considered canceling my shows in Chicago that weekend, but I had made my peace with Dottie's condition and just felt that I had to keep going. On Friday, I said to her, "I need to be leaving now. I'll see you when I get back. I'm gonna say bye." And she said, "No goodbyes." I said, "I'll see you Monday."

The next morning I was in my bus in Chicago when I heard my mobile phone ring. I knew it was my brother-in-law. "You don't have to say anything," I told him. "She's gone." Dottie was only forty-nine.

I had to block out the sadness. I told my road manager I didn't want anyone to talk to me about her death. That night I sang "When Fallen Angels Fly," one of my favorites. For just a moment Dottie entered my mind, and I thought, don't do that. Instead, I put all the emotion into my singing.

Just months later, in August 1996, Emory was admitted to the hospital with pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas that causes complications in other organs. He needed emergency surgery. That same day, I received two CMA nominations, including Female Vocalist of the Year. Once again, triumph mixed with trauma.

I was in Los Angeles to promote my latest CD, The Trouble with the Truth. I called Emory's doctor every day. I was scared to death for him, and wanted to return home. But Emory kept insisting that I stay in California. He was released after four weeks, but three days later he was rushed back to the hospital with a collapsed lung. I raced home. I knew it was serious when Emory, a strong man who hates to be fussed over, told me he was glad I was back. Thank God, Emory's second operation was a success.

The night I won the CMA award for Female Vocalist of the Year, Emory was still too sick to join me for the ceremony, but he watched from home. It was a tremendous thrill to win, especially given the talent of my fellow nominees Shania Twain, Pam Tillis, Faith Hill and Martina McBride. But it was a bittersweet victory. I celebrated with the record label people and came home at three A.M. I couldn't fall asleep, and I crawled out of bed, went down to the living room and just sat alone in the darkness and bawled. It had been one of the most exciting nights of my life, but I was missing two of the people I wanted most to share my triumph with--my father and Dottie. I would have given that award back for just a little more time with my sister.

But the one thing I've learned is that you can't go back. It's important to make time now for the people who are special to you--and to be true to yourself. Once I realized this, I decided to make some changes in my life. At the end of 1997, I took six months off. Emory and I wrote songs, went hiking and camping, and visited our little cottage on five acres in rural Dallas, Georgia. I did a lot of cooking and gardening and we started planning our dream house on 150 acres near the cottage.

Our most important project is to have a baby. We've been trying for some time, but haven't given up hope. My doctor told me to slow down and reduce stress. "You're not going to get pregnant until you do," he warned. I'm not driving myself crazy with fertility drugs, but having a child, even if it means adopting, would be the one thing to truly complete my life.

Unfortunately, the music industry doesn't wait, and so in June I went back out for a five-month tour. But my time off was just what I needed. Friends have told me I'm the happiest and most relaxed I've ever been. It's true. I am more content, wiser. My struggles have taught me important lessons and shown me strengths I wasn't sure I possessed. I was shy and immature when I first arrived in Nashville; now I'm not afraid to speak out about how I feel. Back then I was trying to trust everybody to guide me, but what I finally learned was that the one person I needed to trust was myself.

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