With her green-eyed beauty and sweet Kentucky twang, Patty Loveless seemed destined to become one of country's top divas. She even had that Hall of Fame handle. But for Loveless, Luckless was more like it. So last year, hoping to jump-start her career after a pair of slow-selling albums, she split from her old record label, fired some crew and some band members and let go her longtime manager, Roger Ramey—who happens to be her brother. Then, when a rare, career-threatening aneurysm developed on her vocal cords last October, Loveless, a Baptist coal miner's daughter, feared she was reaping what she had sown: "I thought maybe God was doing it to me for becoming this terrible person, for hurting other people."

Luckily, God also forgives. Last January, three months after the risky laser surgery that doctors warned might end her singing career, Loveless, 36, put her pipes to the test in a recording studio. And when she and producer-husband Emory Gordy, 48, released her sixth album, Only What I Feel, last spring, it was clear that Loveless' luck had turned. Full of moody country ballads and dance-floor swing, the album showcases her post-op vocals ("equal parts Linda Ronstadt and Patsy Cline," said one critic) and will likely go platinum. One of the songs, "Blame It on Your Heart," scooted to No. 1 faster than fans could memorize the chorus: "So blame it on your lyin', cheatin', cold-dead beatin', two-timin', double-dealin', mean-mistreatin', lovin' heart."

Loveless' euphoria—she's even begun to patch things up with her estranged brother—was interrupted in June when ex-husband Terry Lovelace (pronounced "loveless" in Dixie) was quoted in a tabloid newspaper under a headline that screamed, PATTY LOVELESS KILLED OUR BABY! The story reported that Loveless had had an abortion in 1980, at age 23. "It was a terrible time, with just so much hurt and pain," she says. Then a singer in Lovelace's rock band, Patty led a blurred life of all-night booze-and-drug parties. When she got pregnant, she says, "I was frightened to death because of all this stuff in my body. The abortion was a decision Terry and I both made. We swore we would never tell because of the pain it would cause our families."

Lovelace, reached by phone in Kings Mountain, N.C., where he works as a house painter, insists he was tricked into breaking the silence. "Some guy called from the British press, and the next thing, a headline like that appears in a tabloid," he says.

But Patty thinks the story had more to do with Terry's lingering bitterness over their 1985 separation and subsequent divorce. "I wish he could just get on," she says. "I hope that people will understand and that I'll be forgiven. I told my mother before the story came out. She said I'd done the right thing. Imagine how hard that was for her to say. Her daddy was a Baptist preacher, and she grew up in a house where it was considered sinful even to dance."

Singing, though, was a different matter. The sixth of seven children born in the hollows of eastern Kentucky to miner John Ramey and his wife, Naomi, shy Patty was encouraged to croon. "When company came, Momma would want me to sing," she says. "I'd run into the kitchen and sing from there as loud as I could."

Loveless was well over her stage fright by the time she graduated from high school in Louisville, where the family had moved in 1967 seeking medical treatment for the black lung disease that would eventually kill her father at 57. Urged on by older brother Roger, whose chutzpah helped her wangle an audition with Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner and land a song-publishing deal while still in high school, Patty later moved to Nashville and seemed poised for the big time when she fell for Lovelace, a 21-year-old drummer. "At first, Terry was just this friend," Patty says, "and the next thing you know, I'm this silly kid falling in love." Abruptly, she abandoned the career track others had fashioned for her and moved to North Carolina with Lovelace, whom she married in 1976 over the strenuous objections of family and friends. "That's what really pushed me toward Terry," she says. "So many-people had been making decisions for me for so long, I just wanted to feel a sense of freedom."

What began instead was the long cycle of drinking and drugging that culminated in her abortion. Clean and sober by 1985, Patty was lured back to Nashville by Roger, who helped her record and shop a demo tape. On the way to an audition at MCA, Patty met her husband-to-be in the elevator. Says then staff producer Gordy: "I thought, 'This mousy little thing—she's an artist?' " He decided that she was, after hearing her sing, and told his boss, "This girl is great. It's gotta happen."

Now, eight years and six albums later, it has. At home in tiny Dallas, Ga., during a break in a summerlong tour schedule, Loveless is lounging on the deck of the rustic home she shares with Gordy, whom she married in 1989. "I'm the happiest I've ever been," she says as she sips a tall glass of cold orange juice. For luckless Loveless, that's refreshing news.

STEVE DOUGHERTY
GAIL WESCOTT in Dallas

  • Contributors:
  • Gail Wescott.