September 20, 2012
Calling Me Home
On her exquisite new album Calling Me Home, Kathy Mattea shows herself to be an artist who fully understands music as a medium of art and self-expression. Following down a path similar to that of her stellar Grammy-nominated 2008 effort Coal, but expanding upon it by dealing with a wider range of topics, Calling Me Home finds Mattea turning to her own roots for inspiration, and producing what just might be the finest album of her illustrious career.
Produced by Gary Paczosa and Mattea herself, Calling Me Home is a confident, ambitious album that displays broadness in thematic scope, and eclecticism in musical influences, yet does so without sacrificing cohesion. The album is perhaps most instantly appreciable as a work of astounding sonic beauty. Mattea’s distinctive alto has rarely sounded better than it does when poured into a collection of simply beautiful Appalachian songs that she renders with poise, grace, and palpable personal connection. Her voice is framed by the sounds of pure, gorgeous mountain instruments, performed by an ace team of veteran pickers that includes Bill Cooley on guitar, Bryan Sutton on mandolin, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle, among others.
Several songs encapsulate the warmth and comfort of home, as well as the homesickness brought on by one’s being separated from it. The former is manifested in a warm and inviting waltz-like take on Hazel Dickens’ “West Virginia, My Home, with the latter being explored on the beautiful mandolin-driven album opener “A Far Cry.” Mattea also addresses the coal mining industry that is central to the West Virginia economy. In musing on man’s unending lust for coal, she takes on the voice of coal itself in the brilliant Larry Cordle/ Jeneé Fleenor composition, “Hello, My Name Is Coal.” She ventures into bleaker territory with Jean Ritchie’s “Black Waters,” (which features contributions from two of country music’s finest harmony vocalists, Patty Loveless and Emmylou Harris) a song which conveys the frustration of a narrator who sees his beloved farmland overrun by mining pollution. Another Jean Ritchie song, the tragic “West Virginia Mine Disaster” deals with the heartbreak of a woman whose husband is killed in a coal mine, with Mattea delivering a desperate, heartrending performance.
A foremost thematic thread running through the album is that of respect for the natural world, and of the ongoing conflict between preservation of nature and man’s desire for growth and expansion. “The Maple’s Lament” is worth hearing even just for the piercing, moaning fiddle that opens the track, and winds its way throughout, but Mattea’s take on Laurie Lewis’s aching tale of a maple tree that loses its life to a woodsman’s axe is more than enough to keep one interested. In a similar vein, “The Wood Thrush’s Song” takes on the voice of the woodland bird whose song is no longer heard in the Appalachian woods. Mattea’s vocal renderings show that she deeply she identifies with the characters she inhabits in these songs, whether giving voice to the widow of a deceased coal miner, or to something as simple as a personified wood thrush or maple tree.
The theme of human activities’ effect on nature comes to a head on Alice Gerrard’s “Now Is the Cool of the Day.” In this haunting, unadorned a cappella performance, (one of two a cappella tracks on the album, the title track being the other) Mattea recounts an exchange between God and man that serves as a reminder of humankind’s responsibility to tend earth’s natural resources rather than damage them. A message of hope is echoed by Si Kahn’s Gaelic ballad “Gone, Gonna Rise Again,” which deals with the restorative power of nature in the face of having been marred by human carelessness.
The value of this album is manifold. Calling Me Home acquaints us on a personal level with the woman behind the microphone, giving insight into her background, and the things that are important and dear to her. It enlightens, and challenges the listener to become a better, more caring person – not through a preachy or condescending tone, but through thought-provoking song material that that appeals to the listener’s heart, as well as to one’s own sense of home.
In short, the album does everything that music in its finest and purest form is meant to do. The resulting product is not only the best country album of 2012, but a new peak for a woman who has already made some of the most compelling music of her generation. Without a doubt, Mattea’s Calling Me Home is a must-have.