Kathy Mattea has long been a favorite for both the writers and readers of Country Universe. Earlier today, we had a chance to speak with Mattea about her current album, Coal, and covered many other topics along the way.
Coyne: I see Coal as the culmination of what you’ve been doing musically, which has always been introspective and focuses on the bigger issues of life. But you’ve also always done a lot of public work for social justice, especially with AIDS and the environment. It seems like it all came together on one album this time around.
Mattea: It’s been an evolving thing. It wasn’t intentionally that way. Interestingly, it came to me to do the album because of the Sago mine disaster. I had just been torn up by it. My grandfathers were coal miners, and my mom worked for the United Coal Miners and my brother used to work for the coal industry, and I was just so emotionally torn up by that event.
I was asked to sing on Larry King Live on the day of the funerals to close the show. A bunch of musicians came down to work for free, just because there were so moved by the event. And I thought, “This is a great thing. This is what music is for. I’ll make a record of this story. I’ll go back to the songs and make a record about coal mining.”
That was really my only thought about it, and the journey took me to a place that I could not see on the front end. It threaded together family stories. It led me to people who taught me about mountain top removal, which is a form of strip mining that’s going on in Appalachia right now. It also put me in touch with people so I could see that a lot of these stories are ongoing. A lot of these songs are very much the same today as what was going on in the coal fields forty years ago, sixty years ago, and longer.
You had said a few years ago that you’re now in this period of your career where you’re checking off the list. You wanted to make an acoustic album, which was Right Out of Nowhere, and the Celtic album Roses, and you made another Christmas album and now this coal mining album. What’s next on the list? Have you decided yet?
I have decided, but it’s just coming into focus, so if I tell you now, the thing will evolve in another six months so that it won’t be relevant to what I say . You have a jumping off point, but it always turns out to take you places that you don’t expect. I am starting to look around for songs for the next record, and it’s definitely a roots record.
On your recent albums I’ve noticed a lot more writing credits. One of my favorites that you wrote is “Give it Away”, which has the philosophy that you only get to keep the gifts God gave you by giving them away. Are you writing again?
Well, I have not been writing music so much. I’ve been doing some prose writing and some speaking and some teaching. My world has expanded in ways that I didn’t expect. I think eventually there will be some writing that comes out of that, that’s more concrete. Maybe someday there’ll be a book. I think it’s probably still in the beginning stages.
I would love to do some more songwriting. For me, because I’m a singer who occasionally writes, as opposed to a writer who sings, I have to really push myself to get those things finished. I have so much fun and challenging and exciting stuff going on, and it’s just been hard for me to make myself stop and finish those things.
When you go back even to your first album, which had “God Ain’t No Stained Glass Window”, there has been an element of faith in your music. There’s been a trend in country music of trite religious country songs – “I love God. I love country. Yay.” Your songs have been more about the gospel values and how you’re supposed to go out in the world and apply the message.
I am very interested in how the divine manifests itself – where the rubber meets the road. I’ve always been fascinated with where it becomes actualized. Sometimes it’s manifested in a religious point of view, or a Christian point of view, and then sometimes I’ll find that part of me get tickled by a song that doesn’t have any religious point of view.
For me, it’s some kind of inner barometer that I try to go by. I figure if a song moves me, then it has the best chance of moving somebody else. I approach it from a very personal kind of place, so people can take what they like and leave the rest.
When I was going to college, “Love Travels” just came out, and it was the song that meant a lot to my mother because of that. Then a few years later when my father passed away, the song’s meaning transformed into a message of hope for her that they’d be together again someday. Do you find that happens with your songs, that people latch on to them in a way that you wouldn’t expect?
Yes, and I think that’s true of a lot of different kinds of music. I think that’s part of the mystery of music. It seems like this very concrete, nailed down thing, but then it has a life of its own.
Even my own relationship with my songs has morphed over the years. My mom got Alzheimer’s, so my experience of singing “Where’ve You Been” changed. My experience of singing a lot of my songs has changed as my life experience has evolved, and the way my voice will wrap around a song will evolve.
Also, just the nature of repeating them over and over again. Sometimes you’ll just start to sing some verse and it’s like, “My God! That second line is the most beautifully crafted thing that I’ve ever heard. How did I never hear it before now?”
That’s part of what keeps me coming back. It seems predictable, but if you can stay aware and you can stay present, it will keep expanding. That’s part of the mark of choosing songs well.
I remember you saying once that the best songs are the ones that teach you something new every night when you sing them. What songs are doing that the most for you right now?
It’s interesting. I teach people sometimes about performance, about life lessons from the music business, about songwriting and the creative process, and one of the examples I use is “Eighteen Wheels.”
“Eighteen Wheels” is a very simple song, and it can’t really be reinvented. We’ve messed with it, and we’ve tried to keep it fresh and rearrange it, but it really wants to be what it wants to be.
So I have a choice when I stand on stage every night. I can say, “Oh God. I have to sing ‘Eighteen Wheels’ again.” Or I can say, “Okay. I’m gonna sing this song for the one person in the room that this may be the only chance they have to hear the person who recorded it sing it in a room to them.
“Or I’m going to tell this story of this great love that lasted over a lifetime. I’m going to honor that story. Or I’m going to honor the real people that this story was written about. Or I’m going to listen really hard, and I’m going to appreciate this really beautiful guitar solo that Bill does. I’m going to listen to the sound of the bass and how beautifully it cradles the rest of the band.”
There are many, many ways to appreciate the moment. It’s all there, but it’s what I bring to it that makes the difference. The interesting thing is that once I started doing that, which has been years ago now, I decided to make “Eighteen Wheels” this little meditation of mine. The band started to play it differently, the audience started to respond differently, and it became one of my favorite moments in the show all over again.
Robert K. Oermann once said that you were the first great troubadour of country music, and it seemed like you ushered in an era. “Love at the Five & Dime” being recorded raised Nanci Griffith’s profile, then Suzy Bogguss came along, and Mary Chapin Carpenter came along, and there was just this group of very literate, introspective, smart, contemporary female artists. What was it like when that community emerged?
I don’t know if you can really have perspective on it while you’re in it, but it was this moment. I think we were aware that country music was opening up, and part of that was just because pop music was going in to heavy rap or punk, and so people who had been followers of pop music were finding that it was changing so much that they couldn’t find anything to hang on to, so they turned to country music. So there was that shift.
And there was a sense that what had been very much a closed genre was opening up, was more open to new ideas and new sounds, and that was really exciting. So I think we all had a sense of that. Country music is very much a community in a lot of ways, or at least it still was then. So you would see each other at award shows and events and get to hang out.
I think for me, I spent a lot of time being overwhelmed. I enjoyed it on the one hand, but there was always this tension with how much there was to do all of the time. I would wish that I had two or three days to digest what had happened before I had to go and do the next thing. I think a lot of that stuff I’ve appreciated looking back.
It’s really interesting to hear what that was like to experience. I think that for a lot of people, a lot of Country Universe readers especially, we got into country music around that time because it seemed like there was this selection of incredibly different people. Especially the female artists. You were unified by the quality but you were all so different. It was amazing to watch.
We all sort of look at it now as a mini-golden age in country music. A lot of people pine for those years.
It seemed like once those artists faded from the radio, you don’t have those really intelligent songs anymore. With your catalog especially, I was trying to capture what you do as I prepared for this, and what I came up with to describe what your music is about was that your songs deal with heavy topics without being weighed down by them. I think that’s because of a positivity that comes from being able to see the bigger picture, if that makes sense.
I think my attitude has always been, since I moved to Nashville at nineteen, that it’s not just something I do over here, and then the rest of my life is on the other side. Part of why I turned to music is that it was very integrated with my life process and that somehow when I was doing music, I felt more authentic or more connected to myself.
I was lucky enough to have some mentors early on who pointed out that that was a really important part of the process, so I just tried to stick with that as a center. I’m so grateful that I’ll be fifty this summer and I still feel that way about music.
This latest record has been a continuation of the same process – a whole different way of relating to music and songs and the people the songs are about. I had to grow my technique in order to sing them. I’ve had to strip some of my ego away in order to get into these songs because you don’t perform these songs. You just tell the stories.
What sustains me, hopefully, will sustain the people who listen to it. It has to be alive for you first, or it’s not going to be living for anyone else.
Coal has had a much higher profile than a lot of your recent albums, and it may seem like a big difference for those who might have heard you last with Walking Away a Winner. But I feel like your music really started to change with Time Passes By, that suddenly you were drawing from new sources and the music got a lot deeper.
It really was very much with Time Passes By. That was the point where I had been singing a lot of those songs in people’s living rooms for years. They were my backstage greatest hits list, to the point that I thought if people like them so much, why don’t I start doing some of these tunes? If it resonates, then I’m going to test it out.
And that was the beginning of trying not to have my life be so fragmented, but really integrate that musical thing into something that felt real in the rest of my life.
Have you found the audience has changed? When I come to see your shows, it seems like the audience is as familiar with the stuff off your new album as they are with the hits.
It’s interesting. This fun thing that’s happening now is that I’ll play performing arts centers on college campuses, and college students will come and say, “You were the soundtrack to my life. My parents were listening and I listened. I grew up on this stuff.” A lot of times I’ll get to do a residency and teach those kids, which is really fun.
Or a couple of generations will come, two or three generations will come, who have all listened to my music. That part is just beautiful. It is great to feel like there’s this new record that has not only brought in a new audience, but brought a new point of view and experience to my long-term audience.
And the same for me. Like I said, I had to go woodshed on a lot of these songs. I had to learn some stuff. I had to really sit down and dig. It wasn’t just like tossing these songs off, and to feel challenged at this point of my life is really exciting. And to see the audience get that as well has been really fun.
With Coal, it manages to be authentic without it being a reproduction or a by the numbers recreation. It sounds like you found your own space while still preserving the integrity of the songs.
Marty Stuart really helped me with that. When he signed on to produce, I thought, “Okay. I’ll be okay because Marty will tell me if this sucks.” He will not let something inauthentic be put out. Just him saying he would do it was a runaway endorsement for the idea.
I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. When I started it, I thought that I might not be able to do this. There’s songs that I never got. I dropped them off the list because I could never perform them in a way that I believed me when I listened to it back.
I knew I had heard “Green Rolling Hills” before, but at first I confused it with “Leavin’ West Virginia”, because it sounded like you were singing your life story like you had on that song. Then I realized I’d heard it on Emmylou’s Quarter Moon album. It just seemed so autobiographical, like a natural place for your own story on the album.
It was written by Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard and Utah Phillips. Hazel had to leave at seventeen to get a factory job in Baltimore because she couldn’t find work in West Virginia. So she lived it before Emmylou sang it, though I heard it first on Emmylou’s record as well. It’s very much a reflection of my own life.
Marty kept saying, “These songs are in your blood. You sing them like you breathe.” It took me a while to trust that because it sounded almost too easy. It’s not the same relationship with the songs that I’ve had in the past. I thought that I should have to work harder at this. So part of it was being taught “No, that’s a good thing. This is what means you’re on the right track.”
I find it interesting that you discovered those writers through Emmylou. I know that I discovered Bob and Linda Halligan through you, and that’s the thrill of discovery that comes with artists who are great song sleuths. You can get their album and then discover all these other people.
That’s half the fun of it, even from the beginning. Four of my first singles were either first singles or first cuts for songwriters. Being able to give them a voice for their music and the affirmation of that, and have people out the world find them.
One woman who I’ve known for many years through her coming to my shows became a follower of Utah Phillips, and has become an aficionado and champion of songwriters. She just supports arts and music, volunteers at festivals, and it has become a huge chunk of her life. It’s just lovely to see stuff like that happen.
It’s so amazing how that can happen just from hearing a song on an album. I discovered Cheryl Wheeler through you, too.
Oh, she’s great.
“Further and Further Away” just fit in perfectly with Love Travels. You manage to find these songs that dig so much deeper.
I just have to go look for them like needles in haystacks.
And you got through the entire nineties without recording a single Bubba song. We really appreciate that.
My pleasure. That was easy!
Maybe in closing you could recommend for us something that you’re listening to now. What’s spinning on your turntable these days?
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song. That record is so great.
There’s a Celtic woman that I just did a show in Glasgow with – Julie Fowlis. She sings all in Scots-Gaelic, but her voice is like that of an angel.
Actually, the last record to play in my car is Radiohead. I just subscribed to Rhapsody, and I am just immersing myself in music again. It has changed my life. I love it.
There was something else that I was just listening to – The SteelDrivers. They’re just great.
It’s great to be able to have this way to sift through a lot of material, and just sieve out the stuff that you love again. I’ve listened to more music since I subscribed to Rhapsody than I have in years, and I’m really enjoying it.