Classic Country Singles: Kathy Mattea, “Where’ve You Been”

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August 31, 2008

“Where’ve You Been”
Kathy Mattea
1990

Written by Don Henry and Jon Vezner

Everybody loved the song, but nobody wanted to cut it. A slow and simple tale of an aging couple that ends with them both in a hospital, as the wife is succumbing to Alzheimer’s? Not exactly the formula for a smash hit. Co-writers Jon Vezner and Don Henry pitched the song all around Nashville, and it was finally Vezner’s wife, Kathy Mattea, who committed to recording the song that was piercing her heart with every listen.

The tale of Claire & Edwin starts simply enough, with Claire wondering “where’ve you been” when they fall in love, and she finds the man she always dreamed of. She asks the same question when a storm delays his coming home from work – “Her frightened tears fell to the floor, until his key turned in the door.”

The gentle instrumentation – Mattea is accompanied only by acoustic guitar through much of the song – gives the tale an unassuming nature. There’s no foreshadowing of the turn the lyrics will take, and country fans certainly hadn’t been conditioned to three-act story songs that end like this, even though there would be countless numbers of them during the boom years. But the turn comes, as the bridge pulls the rug out from under the listener with disarming humor: “They never spent a night apart, for sixty years she heard him snore; now they’re in a hospital, in separate beds on different floors.”

The final verse, where Edwin and Claire have their last conversation, captures the very best of what country music can be, revealing deep truths about the human experience through careful observation of word and deed: “Then one day they wheeled him in. He held her hand and stroked her head, and in a fragile voice she said, ‘Where’ve you been? I’ve looked for you forever and a day.’”

There is no bombast, no cheap appeals for sentiment or manipulative vocals. Mattea lets the song shine, and only slightly increases the intensity of the last “where’ve you been.”   Still, the scene is so perfectly constructed that it’s hard to believe it really happened, though Mattea’s reverent delivery indicates otherwise. She recalls:

It’s a true story about Jon’s grandparents. They had both gotten very sick and were in the same hospital, but didn’t know it. His grandmother had been slowly losing it, and she didn’t recognize anybody.  She was in unfamiliar surroundings, so she finally quit talking altogether. Jon was there visiting, and he was up seeing his grandfather; he said to the nurse, “Has anybody brought him down to see her?” She said no, and he asked if he could do that.

They said yes, so he wheeled his grandfather into his grandmother’s room. His grandfather kept stroking her hair, saying, “Look at them hair, nobody has hair like grandma,” and she looked at him and said, “Where have you been?” It was the first thing she had said in weeks.

When Jon told me the story for the first time, it was before we had even gotten engaged, and he just cried and cried. When he played the song for me and the first chorus came around, I knew where he was going with the lyric, and I just couldn’t believe he could be that vulnerable as a writer, to put that moment in a song.

The song was Mattea’s biggest hit, winning her a Grammy. It also won Song of the Year at the Grammys, CMA’s and ACM’s. While Mattea had wondered to herself, “Do people want to hear this on the way to work?”, the song struck a deep chord, and it was the first time Alzheimer’s had been captured in a mainstream hit song.

The quiet grace of this single is the perfect illustration of what country music can be, without any of the annoyances that often bring the genre down. Great song, fantastic vocalist, tasteful arrangement and the honest truth – these are the things that keep country fans wading through a sea of mediocrity to find treasures like this.

“Where’ve You Been” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.

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  1. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    I LOVE this song!

  2. Blake BoldtNo Gravatar says:

    Deserved award wins for this Mattea masterpiece. It is simply a classic and one of the finest country songs of its time. I remember the first time I heard it, and I was haunted long after the last note. Storytelling like this is oddly (and sadly) lacking in the music of today.

  3. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    First time I heard this song, it was Don Henry playing it in a songwriter’s circle at the Bluebird. I can’t articulate the emotional magnitude of that moment. This is one of those songs that elevates the entire art form it represents.

  4. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Blake, that’s how I felt the first time I heard it too.

  5. J.R. JourneyNo Gravatar says:

    I cannot add anything fresh to this conversation that hasn’t already been said. Suffice to say I love this song. Great review …

  6. lcbNo Gravatar says:

    This song was released two years after the death of my grandfather. I vividly remember how my grandmother had to be wheeled in to see him a couple of days before he passed away in the hospital. As it turned out, she was nearing the end of her life as well. They had been together for over 50 years, and I doubt they spent five nights apart in all that time. While their story doesn’t follow the exact storyline of “Where’ve You Been,” it doesn’t matter. There’s certainly enough truth and emotion here to pierce the heart. It did mine all those years ago, and it still gives me chills today as I remember my grandfather’s last days. Thanks for the review of a classic country song, with a classic performance by Mattea.

  7. Matt C.No Gravatar says:

    I know this is one of your favorites, Kevin, but it’s one of the more overrated songs in country music history.

    “Where’ve You Been” was extremely lucky to have been released at the very beginning of the 1990s three-verse explosion (in fact, it’s a song that helped launch the trend). The three verse structure, lyrical recoloration (changing contexts/meanings of “Where’ve You Been”) and religious space (death or some other moment with universal meaning) in the third verse was ultimately used on scores of 1990s country hits, some very good, some very bad. The bottom line is that, after hearing all of those songs, “Where’ve You Been” sounds considerably less special. I suspect that if this song was released today, even with the Alzheimer’s Disease reference, a lot of critics would be calling this song trite, predictable and recycled.

    It’s a good song, just not as great as you and many others have made it out to be.

  8. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Matt C. I liked the song when it first came out, but for me it has not held up well. It’s a good song, but the deluge of similar songs that followed in its wake, has considerably lessened its impact

  9. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    I will say that the second verse isn’t as compelling to me as the first or third.

  10. Blake BoldtNo Gravatar says:

    I can see how the song could settle in with all those of its kind, but I believe it to be a unique, original piece of work that is far superior to similar story songs that followed it.

    Would it be in my list of Top 50 country songs? No. But its artistry is still considerable and it’s hard to argue how it would fit into today’s landscape as it was something new in 1990.

  11. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    So, Matt C, it is a revolutionary song then. The fact that others have adopted the form and perhaps have abused it, doesn’t mean that the song isn’t good in its own right. The three verse song, with recoloration, isn’t inherently bad, it’s how the format is executed that’s important. It still stands up for me and I think the understated production and Mattea’s emotional interpretation has a lot to do with it. I will agree with Dan, though, that the second verse is the weakest of the three.

  12. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    “It’s a good song, just not as great as you and many others have made it out to be.”

    Matt C., I’m guessing you and I would not agree on what we think are “great songs.” That’s fine though, because one of my best friends and I both love country music, but we tend to like different songs within the genre. She likes it to be more contemporary and I prefer it to be more traditional. I’m just glad that we can agree that the genre is good over all.

  13. Matt C.No Gravatar says:

    I wouldn’t call it a revolutionary song either. The fact that “Where’ve You Been” was a reasonable commercial success while winning awards and critical acclaim helped to kick the genre into the three-verse craze, but it would’ve ended up there anyways. And all of those songs proved that this type of song isn’t particularly difficult to write or even write well.

  14. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    If you say that it started the “craze”, how is it not revolutionary in some way? Maybe you don’t like the revolution, but it did start the form, as you said in your original comment.

  15. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    I guess I wasn’t clear in my last comment. What I’m trying to say is that in your original comment, you say that the song helped launch this particular format, but then in this last comment you say that it would have happened without it. That’s what confuses me a bit.

  16. Matt C.No Gravatar says:

    There’s a big difference between “helped launch” and “launched.” “Where’ve You Been” was a good song that was among the first of the three-verse form, but it’s hard to argue that nineties country music would’ve been drastically different had it never been released. We have these kinds of debates outside of country music all of the time: we’re always trying to distinguish people who were merely the first to do something from true visionaries (people who do things that would never have been done had they not come along). I consider this song to be merely one of the first good examples of a three-verse country song, not a sine qua non for modern country music songwriting.

  17. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Okay, fair enough. I think we’re playing semantics at this point though, which is admittedly my fault.

  18. Blake BoldtNo Gravatar says:

    I agree that it’s not revolutionary, and yes, it most likely didn’t change the face of ’90s country, but I do believe that it was carefully constructed and had the attention to detail and thematic structure to make it a great song. I feel the same about “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye” by Patty Loveless.

  19. When I stop to think about it, there really are a lot of three-act songs that I love, going back as far as The Browns’ “The Three Bells” from 1959. (Gotta do a feature on that one.)

    In addition to “Where’ve You Been” and “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye”, I really love “Somebody’s Hero”, “That’s My Job”, and “Don’t Blink.” I’m drawing a blank on other songs of that type, but I’m sure when reminded, they’ll be ones I like.

    I tend to gravitate more to songs about life than love, anyway. Is it any wonder I ended up a philosophy major after three weeks of an intro class?

  20. Wow…I absolutely loved reading the post about this song and about its origin, though I am well familiar with the story. I’m a die-hard fan of Kathy Mattea’s voice and artistry, Jon Vezner’s astonishing and critically acclaimed songwriting skills, and the enduring and endearing humanity of both. Kathy’s singing and Jon’s writing and performances come from the heart, and both are proven talents, regardless of those of you who would happily and, in my opinion, groundlessly dispute that.

    I was disappointed to read some of the comments, and fail to understand why this glorious, beautifully written and heartfelt blog had to turn into some sort of critical one-upmanship. Where are your Grammy awards?

    I’ve been in many audiences when Kathy performed “Where’ve You Been,” usually after it has been requested, and the song never fails to evoke wild applause.

    As for that second verse everyone proclaims as “weak” ~ the song tells a story. Is Verse 2 necessary? Perhaps not in your opinion, but it is telling the story. I’ve been hearing that song for many, many summers, and it hasn’t lost its power for me.

    In any case, its continued demand in Kathy Mattea’s concerts by both old and new fans, and in Jon Vezner’s appearances, speaks with far more eloquence and effectiveness than any of these comments.

  21. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    Willa,

    I certainly wouldn’t call the second verse “weak” in any sort of general sense. There are some great details in that verse, and as a whole I think it’s very well-written – I just don’t think it’s quite as interesting or creative as verses one or three (which are exceptionally interesting and creative to me, so the bar is extremely high). That’s not really a big knock on the song, which I said earlier stands as one of the golden standards of the genre (in my mind).

    Also, regarding this bit:
    “I was disappointed to read some of the comments, and fail to understand why this glorious, beautifully written and heartfelt blog had to turn into some sort of critical one-upmanship.”

    Honestly, I think the fact that the blog elicited so many impassioned responses (all arguing as to whether the song is one of the greatest ever or merely great – which is a pretty lofty place to be at, dont’cha think?) speaks to how well-written this entry is. No one would bother arguing on this thread if Kevin had written a crappy piece about the song. Plus, I don’t know about you, but I think songs like this one are strong enough to withstand a little scrutiny – that’s part of what carries on their legacy.

  22. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    While I said that the second verse is the weakest of the three, I certainly didn’t say or don’t think that it’s weak either. My explanation lines up with Dan on that topic. Hopefully, you can tell from my comments that I actually agree with you on this song.

  23. I think you’ve got it right, Dan. While I was surprised to see this entry create any kind of debate (especially after the first few comments were so similar), I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s not like I’m going to stop thinking it’s a masterpiece because others disagree with me.

  24. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Yeah, my plan is to continue loving this song too.:)

  25. FayeNo Gravatar says:

    It is an outstanding song, a lovely example of beauty and truth. (For you philosophy buffs: Now you understand why Truth is Beauty and vice versa…).

    I don’t listen to current country radio anymore, because we have to wade thru hours of junk, just to hear one half-way decent song. This song is a diamond among the rhinestones….

  26. [...] Mattea with the wonderful song about her husband’s grandparents. (Go read the story.) Not only does she have a warm, sultry voice, she has impeccable taste in [...]

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