She was a gifted child who had been skipped a grade, who then dropped out of college and followed her songwriting boyfriend to Nashville. He had given up his dream before a year was through, but Kathy Mattea stuck around, laying the foundations for a career that has already spanned twenty-five years.
Mattea was born in West Virginia, the daughter of a man who was the first in his family to find work outside the coal mines. She started singing in Girl Scout camp, and developed a love for folk music. Only seventeen when she began her studies at West Virginia University , she joined a bluegrass band called Pennsboro. The band leader and principal songwriter wanted to try his luck in Nashville, and Mattea made the bold decision to drop out of college and follow him to Music City.
Only nineteen when she arrived, Tennessee law prohibited her from serving alcohol. This made a waitressing job impossible. She got in touch with the only West Virginia native she knew in town, and he told her that the Country Music Hall of Fame was hiring tour guides. Her outgoing personality landed her the minimum-wage job, and provided her formal introduction to the world of country music.
Mattea became enthralled with the genre’s history. On her lunch break, she would go into the archive room and watch clips of Merle Travis and listen to Jimmie Rodgers. She performed around town at night, and her talents led to gigs as a demo singer and a background vocalist. In 1983, Mercury Records signed Mattea, who was one of the most prominent demo singers in town by that point.
She later described her early work for the label “floundering.” Two albums, Kathy Mattea and From My Heart, were released, and they each produced a handful of top forty singles. She was still struggling to find her voice as an artist, and her future overall looked shaky when she turned in her third album, Walk the Way the Wind Blows. The label surprised her by releasing “Love at the Five and Dime” as the first single. She loved the Nancy Griffith song but didn’t expect it to be a single.
When it was released, it provided the breakthrough Mattea had been waiting for. “Love at the Five and Dime” became her first big hit, earning her a Grammy nomination. The CMA nominated her for the Horizon Award in 1986. Walk the Way the Wind Blows produced three more top ten hits, and the title cut earned a CMA nomination for Single of the Year in 1987.
With new confidence, she recorded her fourth album, Untasted Honey. The label rushed out “Goin’ Gone” as the lead single because they’d heard some other artists were planning on putting it out as well. But even as that song became her first #1, radio DJs were asking when they would release a track from the album called “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses.” When the label acquiesced, Mattea’s career exploded. “Eighteen Wheels” was the first multi-week single by a female artist in nine years, and it won Mattea the Single of the Year awards from both the ACM and CMA. The song even made a pop culture impact, being referenced in the film Rain Man.
Mattea scored another pair of #1 hits from her fifth album Willow in the Wind, “Come From the Heart” and “Burnin’ Old Memories.” In 1989, Mattea was named Female Vocalist by the CMA. Soon after, she released a song that would become her signature hit. Co-written by her future husband Jon Vezner, “Where’ve You Been” was a true story about his grandparents. The stark ballad deeply resonated with listeners, and earned Grammys for both Mattea and its songwriters. Mattea won both the ACM and CMA Female Vocalist awards in 1990, and Wind became her second gold album. She even replaced Reba McEntire as the token female artist in that year’s CMA Entertainer of the Year race.
The success of “Where’ve You Been” inspired Mattea to become more adventurous with her material, resulting in her first truly cohesive album, Time Passes By. It was released in 1991, and was heavily influenced by a trip she had taken to Scotland. Then, a blood vessel in her throat burst, forcing potentially career-ending surgery. Before having the successful operation, she recorded Lonesome Standard Time, which featured the philosophical “Standing Knee Deep in a River” and “Seeds”, the latter of which was requested by President Bill Clinton when she performed for him years later.
Mattea began to use her celebrity to draw attention to causes dear to her heart. She became the first country artist to visibly promote AIDS awareness. In 1992, she was invited to appear on the CMA awards. Other award shows had taken to wearing red ribbons to draw attention to the illness. The notoriously conservative CMA had the stars where green ribbons instead, for environmental awareness. When Mattea presented that night, she wore three red ribbons along with the green one, and announced the names of her three friends who had died from the disease. The CMA was furious, and excluded her from their anniversary celebration the following year.
Despite the controversy, she continued to have success with her music. She earned a Grammy for her 1993 Christmas album Good News, which focused solely on religious music and contained no secular material. She made a conscious effort to go commercial the following year, with the slick Walking Away a Winner. The title track was her last big hit, peaking at No. 3.
While on tour to support the record, Mattea found herself not wanting to get out of bed, feeling completely uninspired. A friend lent her the book, The Artist’s Way, and she felt a renewed sense of purpose. She took a couple of years preparing her next album, the sonically ambitious Love Travels. It was released to rave reviews in 1997. The Nashville Music Awards deemed it Album of the Year, and she won a CMA for the video of the lead single, “455 Rocket.”
It was another three years before Mattea released what would be her swan song for Mercury, The Innocent Years. When the label released the novelty bonus track “BFD” as a single, ignoring the deeper material on the record she’d decided she’d had enough of the major label scene. From that point on, she decided to fulfill every musical goal she’d ever had. After signing a deal with Narada, she released the Celtic-flavored Roses in 2002, followed by another Christmas album, Joy For Christmas Day. In 2005, she released the acoustic album she’d always dreamed of making, Right Out of Nowhere.
Around this time, Mattea saw Vice President Al Gore’s slide show on global warming. She didn’t sleep for two days after, and she felt a deep urge to get involved. She was deeply worried about the stripping being done to the mountain tops in West Virginia. When Gore began training others to do the presentation, Mattea was in the first group trained. She has since given the slide show many times, all across the country.
Her concerns took on new urgency when twelve miners were killed in the Sago mine disaster. Another one of her dream projects was to collect the coal mining songs that she’d heard throughout the years. She collaborated with Marty Stuart to produce this year’s Coal, which is equal parts artistic creation and historical document. It’s Mattea’s most fully realized album to date. She is currently touring in promotion of the project.
- “Love at the Five & Dime,” 1986
- “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” 1988
- “Come From the Heart,” 1989
- “Where’ve You Been,” 1989
- “Walking Away a Winner,” 1994
- Willow in the Wind, 1989
- Time Passes By, 1991
- Good News, 1993
- Love Travels, 1997
- Right Out of Nowhere, 2005
- Coal, 2008
- ACM Single (“Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses”), 1989
- ACM Song (“Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses”), 1989
- ACM Female Vocalist, 1990
- ACM Song (“Where’ve You Been”), 1990
- CMA Single (“Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses”), 1988
- CMA Female Vocalist, 1989 & 1990
- CMA Video (“455 Rocket”), 1997
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“Where’ve You Been”), 1991
- Grammy: Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album (Good News), 1994
When I first compiled my own list of 100 greatest women there were three prominent names that I left off. Skeeter Davis and Donna Fargo were complete oversights and Kathy Mattea was a deliberate omission. I’ve revised my own list slightly and slotted Mattea in at #90. In recent years she’s been rather more Americana than Country and would rate very highly on my list of “Alt-Country” or “Americana” women if I were to ever compile such a list (which I won’t since no one has ever been able to define clearly what either term means).
That said, I very much like Kathy Mattea as a singer and have all of her albums except the Christmas albums and the most recent album. I’ve always liked Kathy’s singles (including the much maligned “Street Talk”) but her albums have always been a very mixed bag, with both hidden gems and total snoozers.
I am looking forward to picking up her most recent CD – I can tell from the song titles that she’s selected some terrific songs by terrific writers. Included among the songs are three by the great Billy Edd Wheeler “Coal Tattoo”, Redwing/Blackbird” and “The Coming of The Roads” plus the immortal Merle Travis tune “Dark As A Dungeon”. There are two selections from folk songwriter Jean Ritchie, “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” and “Blue Diamond Mines” plus songs from folkies Hazel Dickens and Bruce Phillips. I’ve always said nothing good ever comes from committees and the best songs on this album are NOT co-written efforts
I’ve heard most of the songs as performed by other artists (and if you haven’t heard Billy Edd Wheeler sing, you really should seek out his recordings – he is the best at interpreting his own material) and Mattea is to be commended for her courage in recording previously recorded songs. I hope her interpretations at least approach those of the original artists, but given her track record, I expect they will.
Despite her explorations in other genres, I would have to say this placement is fairly accurate. Kathy is a wonderful example of a fine singer letting the music speak. Her clear, crisp vocal talent is a perfect match for some of the best material of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and she was a classy representative of country music who never strayed from her principles. She also proves that blending different styles of music can be done with justice, unlike the efforts of many artists today.
Kathy’s approach to country music is definitely from a folk music perspective more than from a straight Nashville tract. This is not too different from the folk music revival (or “scare”) of the 1960s, when traditional American music forms were reintroduced into popular music and given new relevance. Kathy clearly studied the music’s history, which to my mind makes her placement here very appropriate. And my guess is that we’ll see more like-minded women even further on in this list.
In preparing my review for Coal (which is truly an exemplary piece of work– not quite on par with Patty Loveless’ landmark Mountain Soul but certainly one of the finest, most fully-realized country records of this decade) earlier this year, it was a real pleasure to go back and re-visit much of Mattea’s back catalogue, most of which I hadn’t actively listened to in several years.
Though I agree that her albums have been somewhat uneven, Mattea’s high points really tower over those of many of her contemporaries. “Standing Knee Deep in a River” and “Asking Us to Dance,” though not two of her biggest hits, are probably my two favorite singles of hers and are great examples of how pop, folk, and even soul music influences outside of country can be put to effective use within the genre. Like Pam Tillis and Carlene Carter, Mattea really understands how to draw from a diverse set of influences and still keep her work grounded in a deep understanding of country music.
Kathy Maetta and Mary Chapin Carpenter are a lot alike. Both are folk singers at heart, and both had short, but very successful, runs in commercial country music.
While visiting my Mom in scorching Chesapeake, VA (101-102-101-99 – much hotter than Orlando ever gets!) I picked up COAL – it is easily the best CD Mattea ever released – worth a full 5 stars – of course radio won’t play it
One of my very favorite singers….and I mean it! Kathy can belt out a tune in such a clear and beautiful alto voice. It never ceases to amaze me, how very pure her vocal talent is. If you are ever lucky enough to attend a live show, you will swear that you are listening to a CD…she is absolutely perfect in pitch all the time. And a stunning personality, love of God and Country to boot. I wish she was higher on the list, but I am just happy to see her on it!