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.
The list of distinguished artists who have recorded “Song for the Life” is a long one, but Alan Jackson is the only one who managed to make a hit out of it.
That radio played this pensive and philosophical ballad at all is a testament to Jackson’s incredible popularity at the time. Its mere presence on the airwaves elevated the genre for the handful of weeks it was in heavy rotation.
When you have some time, check out the other versions of this by the Seldom Scene, Johnny Cash, Jerry Jeff Walker, Alison Krauss, John Denver, Waylon Jennings, Kathy Mattea, and its writer, Rodney Crowell. It’s one of those songs that reveals quite a bit about where a singer is in their life and how they feel about the meaning of it all.
For my money, Jackson’s reading is the best, though I suspect he’d hit it even further out of the park if he recorded it again today.
Lately, I’ve been playing “Deep Down” on a loop, and it got me thinking…
What if one of the big female artists of 2011 were the first to release this song?
If Carrie Underwood recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, but she’d be criticized for over-singing and over-producing it.
If Taylor Swift recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, but she’d be criticized for missing every other note, even with the help of auto-tune.
If Miranda Lambert recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, and further evidence that she’s the messiah of contemporary country music, regardless of how she sang or produced it.
But alas, Pam Tillis recorded it in 1995, and the song went largely unnoticed, because a great song with a great vocal performance and a great production was expected, not special, coming from her.
Perhaps the best way to listen to country music in 2011 is not to listen to anything else in the genre’s history. That way the illusion that there is some great contemporary country music out there can be preserved.
Cyrus released “Achy Breaky Heart” when I was seven years old, and I fell for it. The upside? My mom bought me his Some Gave All cassette tape, and I fell in love with “She’s Not Cryin’ Anymore.” It was the first song in my life to grip me with emotion, which would later come to define my bond with music.
I know that it was either this or “Physical”, but I’m pretty sure it was this one because I have foggy memories of this being turned up for my amusement in the car when I was a small child. This is what happens when you’re a child of the eighties.
Dan Milliken: “Keep on Dancing” – The Gentrys
This is just my best guess. My dad used to crank this oldie in our living room and literally swing me and my little sister around in the air to it when we were young. I sometimes wonder if my preference for uptempo material (regardless of actual emotional tone) was established right there.
I don’t have a particular song in mind, but when I think about it, I realize that the first music that I remember really liking was from Raffi, a children’s’ singer. There was a particular cassette that I was obsessed with (recorded by my dad from the TV), which was a recording of a concert that aired on the Disney channel and subsequently released on CD a few years later.
As an adult when I revisited the album, along with Raffi’s Christmas album, I realized that the instrumentation closely resembled the sounds of country music. In fact, the country music community released a tribute to Raffi, which includes adorable recordings by the likes of Keith Urban, Marty Stuart, Kathy Mattea, Lee Roy Parnell, Lari White, Elizabeth Cook, Eric Heatherly, Alison Krauss and Asleep at the Wheel, among others.
My favorite track from the tribute is Raul Malo’s version of “Thanks A Lot” (not the Ernest Tubb song). Although I didn’t fall in love with country until I was a young adolescent, as I see it, loving Raffi music proves that I was wired to naturally love country music, even as a young child.
His sweet AM radio sound resonated across genre boundaries, but for traditionalists, John Denver was where they would draw the line.
That such inoffensive music could ever cause such controversy may seem silly today, but Denver’s crossover success in the country market reached its peak with a 1975 CMA win for Entertainer of the Year.
Coming one short year after the hotly contested Olivia Newton-John win for Female Vocalist, presenter Charlie Rich may not have been in the right frame of mind when he lit the envelope on fire before announcing Denver’s win, but he certainly spoke for the wide dissent felt among the industry’s rank for these genre carpetbaggers.
But how did Denver get to the point that he’d even be a contender for country music’s top prize? He started out as Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., born in New Mexico to a military family that moved around often. During a stint in Arizona, he spent two years as a member of the Tuscon Arizona Boys Chorus.
His interest in music was further developed when he received a guitar from his grandmother on his twelfth birthday. He was so enchanted with dreams of being a music star that while attending high school in Texas, he ran away to California with his father’s car, but was brought back home to finish high school.
He started out in the folk movement, joining The Mitchell Trio, which was eventually rebranded Denver, Boise, and Johnson by the time Denver departed. Fellow member Michael Johnson would also go on to a successful solo career, having big AC hits in the seventies before topping the country charts in the mid-eighties.
Denver’s solo career heated up quickly. Shortly after leaving the trio, he released his first solo album in 1969. It wasn’t a runaway hit, but it featured a song called “Leavin’ On a Jet Plane”, which became a #1 hit for Peter, Paul and Mary later that year. Two more solo albums floundered until he had his breakthrough as an artist with “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” It was a huge pop hit, reaching #2 on the Hot 100, and made a minor impression on the country chart as well.
Now a platinum-selling artist, Denver’s brand of folk slowly took a more country turn. Unlike Newton-John, who was embraced by country music more fully than pop music at first, country radio came on board after Denver was already a regular fixture on the pop charts, starting with “Annie’s Song” in 1974. After “Back Home Again” topped both charts, his subsequent singles in 1974 and 1975 would do better on the country charts, with “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and “I’m Sorry” becoming #1 country hits.
Thus the controversial win for Entertainer, which in retrospect has more to do with Nashville’s xenophobia than anything else. Listen to Denver’s big hits alongside Nashville songs of the same era, and they don’t sound particularly less country than a lot of it, especially the records of Rich, his personal flamethrower.
Denver’s style of music laid the groundwork for everyone from Mac McAnally and Dan Seals to Kathy Mattea and Zac Brown Band, and while his star soon faded on pop radio, he still made regular appearances on the country charts, scoring a bit of a comeback in the eighties with the top ten hits “Some Days are Diamonds (Some Days are Stone)” and “Dreamland Express.” He also reached the top twenty with “Wild Montana Skies”, featuring the talents of Emmylou Harris on vocals.
Denver died tragically in a plane crash in 1997. While his contributions to country music were controversial at the time, memorials ran at both the Country Music Association awards and the Grammy Awards following his death, further solidifying the wide impact that this singer-songwriter made on contemporary music.
from the 1997 album Love Travels
Our antiseptic approach to the legends of American history often results in the life’s work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being reduced to four words and a three-day weekend. To prevent this in my own mind, I often revisit “Beautiful Fool”, a Don Henry composition that can be found on Kathy Mattea’s 1997 album Love Travels.
What I love about this song is its realism and its willingness to take on two voices of perspective at the same time. As an older woman reflects on King’s impact on her country and the sacrifices he was willing to make, she remembers her far less charitable opinion of him when he was alive: “Walter Cronkite preempted Disney one night, and all us kids were so upset. We thought you were a trouble instigator marching through our TV set.”
I particularly appreciate the line in the bridge that connects him to other peacemakers. Peacemaking is often confused with passiveness, when it actually requires far more work than reflexive response with violence. “Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ. History repeats itself so nice. Consistently we are resistant.” King modeled his use of nonviolent resistance after Gandhi’s success in India and used the Gospel to make the case to the fence-sitters, a powerful approach given that the same Bible was being used by his opposition to make the case for continued segregation and denial of human rights.
The description of him as a “beautiful fool” captures both the cynicism that was directed at him for attempting to “fight a fight without a fist” and the deep admiration for him trying, even if it was arguably in vain. I suspect that it requires a good dose of hopeless naïveté to change the world, especially when surrounded by cynics who tell you that it’s a waste of time to try. There will always be more of the cynics. After all, cynicism is little more than naïveté without the concern for humanity and willingness to put in any effort for a cause other than your own.
The song is open to wide interpretation, but I feel that the final verse captures when the narrator moves from being a cynical observer of King to one who sees him appreciatively as a beautiful fool: “I saw you on the black and white with blacks and whites applauding you. I saw you on another time without a sign of life in you.”
Earlier this year, a discussion with a colleague of mine revealed a mutual affinity for country music. It was a typical conversation that I have with fans that are around my age. We fell in love with the music about twenty years ago, don’t think it’s quite as good as it once was, but can find a lot of things to like from just about any era, including the current one.
So in the 2010 version of making a mix tape, I offered to load up her iPod with a whole bunch of country music. A week later, she took me to dinner as a thank you. We started talking about the music that I’d passed on to her, and she told me that she was listening to the iPod while mowing the lawn. Suddenly, a song came on that made her cry. Full-out cry, mind you, not just a tear or two.
So I ask if it was “Love, Me”, or maybe “Where’ve You Been”, or something similarly tragic. She was almost embarrassed as she told me that it was the old Anne Murray hit, “You Needed Me.”
Now, there are a few possible reactions to this. I suspect for many or even most, it will be either befuddlement or outright derision. But me? I totally understood why that song would have such a strong impact, and I can best describe it in one word: Sincerity.
It’s the bane of the cynic’s existence, and of many critics as well. You don’t see Anne Murray pop up on too many lists when discussing the greatest country artists of all time, or even the greatest pop-country singers of all time, even though she’s definitely both. Ditto for Kenny Rogers and my once future wife Olivia Newton-John, who also fit well into both categories.
But there are some artists who exude sincerity and still are treated with reverence, like Loretta Lynn and Alan Jackson. What makes them different? I think it’s the added perception of authenticity that differentiates them from the artists above.
Take Dolly Parton as a case study. Rare is the critic or country music historian who doesn’t speak highly of both her pre-1976 and post-1999 output, where her music was firmly grounded in her mountain roots. But her pop era – roughly 1977-1986 – is widely maligned. The sincerity is there all the way throughout her career, whether it’s delivering the brilliant working class social commentary present in both “In the Good Old Days” and “9 to 5″, or when she’s just being hopelessly maudlin, be it with “Daddy Come and Get Me” or “Me and Little Andy.”
I think that she gets less credit for that period because there’s a sense that she’s being something that she’s not, that the authenticity is lacking. When you think someone is being inauthentic in their sincerity, it’s hard for some to embrace them. I think that I’m in the minority in that I don’t care much if someone is authentic, so long as they’re sincere.
Where things fall apart for me are when I perceive authenticity without being able to sense the sincerity in the performances. This is my major issue with many of the more traditional artists today. I think Jamey Johnson, Gretchen Wilson, and Brad Paisley are completely authentic in their music. They are who they say they are, and such. But I have trouble getting into them because they don’t come off as genuinely sincere.
It’s hard to articulate this, but to use Paisley as an example, he often sounds to my ears like he’s emotionally divorced from what he’s singing. The brain is plugged in, but I don’t feel the heart. I loved, loved, loved “Letter to Me” because his voice cracked with emotion. I felt the sincerity that I don’t feel when I hear “Anything Like Me” or “Little Moments.”
Meanwhile, Carrie Underwood can rarely do wrong with me because she drips with sincerity, something that was prevalent even during her embryonic Idol days, but has really come into play with her writing so much of her material. “Change” is my favorite song she’s done so far, not just because I fully agree with the message, but that she sings it with such sincerity. Does she live out the message in her own life? I have no idea. But her performance is so powerful to my ears that it being her authentic life story is as irrelevant to me as the fact that Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon aren’t really a death row convict and a Catholic nun, respectively.
Sincerity over authenticity, if I have to choose. Both are great to have, but the former is more essential than the latter in the music that I love the most. It may be a meaningless distinction in the end, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with for me usually liking songs much better by great singers than by the original songwriters, and for Laura Bell Bundy getting so much more play on my iPod than Taylor Swift, the most genuinely authentic teen star ever. Or at least since Lesley Gore.
With that all said, how about we listen to some Anne Murray? She’s awesome.
This Keith Whitley classic was recorded as part of a tribute album to the late country star. It became a hit all over again, perhaps because Krauss performed it in a near-whisper. The quiet arrangement matches the sentiment beautifully. – Kevin Coyne
Lawrence dishes on his ex’s cheating ways to her new potential lover. How did she get that way? He reveals that he’s the one who taught her everything she knows from the cheater’s playbook. Moreover, he seems regretful of her corruption. – Leeann Ward
Cowboy Take Me Away Dixie Chicks
1999 | Peak: #1
In a modern world where life can so easily feel cold and mechanical, love remains earthy and exciting and mysterious. It’s a window into a different world, one where we’re not defined by the predictables of our routine – the same stresses, the same cars and buildings – but by our core nature as people, our place in the greater fabric of Earth and, perhaps, heaven. On the surface, “Cowboy Take Me Away” sounds like just a sugar-sweet love song – I’ve even heard it called “pre-feminist” – but there’s something else going on here: a plea for life to have meaning again. – Dan Milliken (more…)