Still the Rage

Even at 73, Patti Page isn't ready to fade away just yet

Sometimes she tells herself that no one remembers, convinces herself that everybody has forgotten her songs and her three network television shows and every last one of her 84 Top-40 singles. On those days, she's certain the era of Vic and Frank and long, luxurious gowns and singing in tune is relived only at family gatherings or on the History Channel. Although she still plays a dozen or so dates a year, Patti Page, known in the 1950s as "The Singing Rage," understands that her career belonged to a pre-rock age that few of the kids who run MTV or Nashville understand. She knows that to most she's now just a square 73-year-old grandmother who makes her own maple syrup, not the crossover queen who made Nashville what it is today, the refined Okie who made Faith and Garth and the Chicks and Shania possible.

Then she's proven wrong. Again.

Page's manager called her in 1999 and suggested she get in touch with Nashville singer-songwriter Victoria Shaw to see if Shaw would be interested in helping Page put out a new album. Shaw said she'd love to but she couldn't produce it. Instead, Shaw suggested her producer, Grammy-award-winning songwriter Jon Vezner (husband of Kathy Mattea). When Page talked to Vezner, she found someone who was not only willing but excited by the idea. Because Vezner remembers. Remembers Page, remembers his father, remembers how the two of them came together.

"We hit it off," Page says, "and he wasn't only excited because of my recording career, but also because there was a personal story there. Jon's father had always spoken of me very lovingly. I was in Minneapolis shortly after the Korean War, and I was asked to go to a hospital and sing to some of the soldiers. Jon's father was one of those soldiers, and he never forgot it. He would tell his wife and Jon about this lovely lady who came and sang to everyone. He would tell them, 'She nursed me back to life.' And when Jon told me that--well, it's those moments that make it all worthwhile." This record, then, Vezner told Page, would be a gift to his father.

A present that received its official unwrapping this week with the release of Brand New Tennessee Waltz. It's a tranquil, sometimes jazzy, orchestral take on classic and new country and western songs, one that despite its very un-Eminemesque flava has already garnered praise from trend watchers like Entertainment Weekly, which said that Page "reminds [us] that age needn't dull a spectacular voice or good taste in material."

The album marks a small resurgence of interest in Page's career, a stunning 50-year success story that largely had been forgotten until 1999, when she won her first Grammy, for best traditional pop vocal performance for Live at Carnegie Hall. On it, Page, who first hit it big as a crooner of simple, swaying big-band ballads, returned to the country-tinged style that begat some of her biggest hits. She covers the Don Williams standard "I Believe in You," and takes her turn at the Anne Murray hit "Could I Have This Dance." ("I wanted to do it because I know Anne," Page says, "and that was the song that played for our first dance when Jerry [Filiciotto, her third husband] and I got married.") She also takes on Vezner's Grammy-winner, "Where've You Been," as well as new ones like "Hope Chest," "Paper Dolls," and "One Less Rose in Texas."

Victoria Shaw, who ended up as executive producer on Brand New Tennessee Waltz, called it a "joyful project. ...It's really touching how so many people have been so excited about this album. Everyone involved said yes without a moment's hesitation."

By "everyone involved," Shaw primarily means the backup singers. By "backup singers," she means a trove of Nashville's best vocalists: Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Suzy Boguss, Trisha Yearwood, and of course Kathy Mattea all lent their voices to the project. Vezner had little trouble persuading them to participate, most saying they were thrilled to be a part of it.

Understandable, when you consider what Page's success meant to country music. As Bob Allen and Pete Loesch wrote in The Blackwell Guide to Country Music: "At the outset of the '50s, country music was still very much a rural cult music in terms of its...'demographic appeal.' Even in the late '50s, sales of 25,000 on a country hit were deemed respectable. Yet at the same time, artists like Patti Page and Rosemary Clooney were having million-sellers with country songs...recorded in a pop style. Thus the sound of ringing cash registers and the allure of the more lucrative pop-crossover market became the inspiration for the 'Nashville sound'...[which] shaped the course of country music ever since."

With her new album, Page was not trying for anything so grand. "Our aim was to be contemporary while remaining true to what Patti is and has always been as a vocalist," says Vezner. "She's just an honest singer. She isn't about vocal gymnastics; she just gets in there and sings."

For proof, Page offers a breakdown of her November 1999 recording schedule. "I had one day in the studio," she says, chuckling. "We put down most of the songs that day. They were really surprised that I did it like in the old days. You just do it. Now, they spend weeks in the studio. But they didn't have to spend any time making me sing in tune." She laughs. "So it was quite a thing for them. The first song we recorded was 'Tennessee Waltz.' And I did it in the same key as I did it 50 years ago."

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