Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists: Kathy Mattea

All of my favorite artists make music that I enjoy.   Kathy Mattea makes music that challenges me to become a better person.

The philosophy major in me finds wisdom in her work. The teacher in me, lessons to impart. The Catholic in me, reminders of a higher power and my obligations to my fellow man.

There's a humanity in Kathy Mattea's work that infuses it with passion and purpose. While she had a strong run at the top of the hit parade, winning major industry awards and selling gold and platinum, her most significant work has been produced since she turned her sights away from the charts and looked inward for inspiration.

What follows are the 25 performances that I value the most. Sometimes, while these records play, it's possible to believe in both a better world and my own power to shape it.

“Ready For the Storm”
Time Passes By, 1991

It may have been Mattea's sixth studio album, but it was on Time Passes By that she truly found her voice. Following a trip to Scotland, she began incorporating more Celtic influences into her work. One of her inspirations was Dougie MacLean, who penned the resilient “Ready For the Storm.” Bad times are on the way, but she's prepared to weather them.

“Ashes in the Wind”
Roses, 2002

Mattea has been married to songwriter Jon Vezner since the late eighties, and many of her strongest songs have come from his pen.  “Ashes in the Wind” tells the story of an unrequited love, ending with the man she always harbored feelings for dying at a young age. She's determined to chart a new course in the aftermath of the loss, comforted by the fact that he is now in heaven.

“Listen to the Radio”
Lonesome Standard Time, 1992

This fun Nanci Griffith tune is one of the most straightforwardly country songs Mattea has recorded. She's leaving her unappreciative beau at home, “sittin' on the sofa, lookin' for his supper”, and her only friend is the radio.Thankfully, she's found Loretta Lynn on the dial, and she asks herself the question that countless others have: “Where would I be in times like these without the songs Loretta wrote?”

“Patiently Waiting”
Love Travels, 1997

There are a few songs on this list that share the theme of finally leaving after putting it off for too long.  Here, Mattea realizes that “Good things only come to those who hit the road when they know what they want.” Gillian Welch penned this one.

“Asking Us to Dance”
Time Passes By, 1991

Hugh Prestwood is the songwriting poet who can claim this among his best work. Romantic without being sappy, “Asking Us to Dance” is a mature look at love, with one lover reminding the other that “All the things on earth worth having are things that we've already got.”

“Guns of Love”
Roses, 2002

Mattea's faith is one that is firmly grounded in non-violence and active peacemaking, and she's pushing here for a change in the weapons of choice. She advocates that we aim a little higher, and warns, “Bet on your anger, if that's what you choose. Nothing's gonna change, everybody's gonna lose.”

“Right Outta Nowhere”
Right Out of Nowhere, 2005

A tale of two souls who both broke free of the chains that held them back. One is a woman who hits the highway “with every ounce of faith” she's got. The other is a man with several doctorates who leaves it all behind to run a junk shop on a tropical island. “Leap,” she sings, “and the net will appear.”

“You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive”
Coal, 2008

It's already become something of a modern standard, having been recorded by both Patty Loveless and Brad Paisley. Mattea's version is heightened by Marty Stuart's expert production, and Mattea's sincere performance clearly communicates the heritage she shares with the characters of the song.

“Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses”
Untasted Honey, 1987

Mattea's biggest hit tells the story of a trucker making the last run of his career, with only fifteen miles left to go.  He's on his way home to “spend the rest of his life with the one that he loves.” Its sing-along chorus makes it a highlight of her live show.

“Unto Us a Child is Born”
Joy For Christmas Day, 2003

Mattea makes better Christmas music than just about anyone.  One of the strengths of her work is that it is never secular in nature, with the focus always being on the nativity. Many consider her definitive take of “Mary, Did You Know” her best work of this nature, but I prefer this upbeat highlight from her second Christmas set, with the emphasis on the newborn baby's title, “Prince of Peace.”

“Give it Away”
Right Out of Nowhere, 2005

One of Mattea's few self-penned numbers was inspired by a backstage meeting with Keb' Mo'. The idea here is that the gifts we are given by God can only be kept by giving them away, which transforms into a metaphor for the love between two partners in the final verse.

“(Love is) My Last Word”
The Innocent Years, 2000

If there's a mood that's virtually absent from Mattea's rich and varied catalog, it's bitterness. Here, she's choosing to lay all of her cards out on the table and bare her soul, but is doing so in a way that is honest and fair: “I'm choosing hope, I'm walking faith. I'm praying to God that it's not too late…For you and I, love is my last word. Not goodbye.”

“Standing Knee Deep in a River (Dying of Thirst)”
Lonesome Standard Time, 1992

The image in the title is derived from this song's main idea, which is that we're surrounded by everything we need, but we're too blind to realize it. It's true about friendship and love

, but also about the homeless, who are surrounded by people who can help them but go unseen by them.

“Walking Away a Winner”
Walking Away a Winner, 1994

Mattea's 1994 set is her most slickly produced, a calcuated attempt to make a commercial record. It succeeded, as the set went gold and the classic title track became her biggest hit in five years.  The self-assured confidence of the track makes it an empowering highlight of her career.

“Come From the Heart”
Willow in the Wind, 1989

Many of Mattea's best songs aren't about love; they're about life, and how to live it. The philosophy espoused by “Come From the Heart” is to not overthink things, and be guided by your heart instead.   “I need to remember,” she sings, “that there's such a thing as trying too hard.”

“Further and Further Away”
Love Travels, 1997

Watching your parents age is chilling, as you still have them with you but you know that time is running short.  Songwriter Cheryl Wheeler penned this song after visiting her father. On the way home, she pulled over and started crying, as she was overwhelmed with the feeling that “the place where I come from” is “slipping further and further away.”   Mattea's performance is understated and heartfelt as she delivers lines like, “You were strong and you knew everything back before I had to know.”

“That's all the Lumber You Sent”
Roses, 2002

This is the opening track on Mattea's Celtic-themed Roses set from 2002, and it's her version of a judgment day.  St. Peter shows the man at the gate to his home.  After walking him past big and beautiful houses, he shows him his “two-room shack,” and the man asks, “How can this be?”  Peter replies, “That's all the lumber you sent”, during your earthly life.   “See that man back there in that great big house?” he adds, “He found out early what it's all about, and built that place with his heart.”

The man vows that given another chance, he'd “love God, my fellow man, take a wife, make a stand.  Be the giving-est guy I can be.”  It's a morality tale with the clear message of what really matters in the end.

“Loving You, Letting You Go”
Right Out of Nowhere, 2005

A fascinating twist on the implications of unconditional love.  “I didn't know they'd be the same one day – loving you, letting you go.”  She still loves the man in this song, but knows he needs his freedom, and loves him enough to let him go. She tells him as they part,  “I can't have you thinking of me as just the one who keeps you where you don't want to be.”

“Love at the Five & Dime”
Walk the Way the Wind Blows, 1986

Mattea's breakthrough hit is a beautiful love story between a Woolworth's salesclerk and a steel guitar player.  They waltz the aisles of the five and dime after the store has closed, and stay together through turbulent times, which include losing a child and competition for the Rita's hand from within Eddie's band.

Roses, 2002

There's a righteous anger that simmers underneath “Junkyard”, Mattea's indictment of the corrosive effect of the media and neighborhood gossip. Even though she poses it as a question, it's really an assertive demand: “Is it okay for me to say my mind is not a junkyard? My heart is not a dump for all the gunk around.  My spirit's not a junkyard. No, it's holy ground.” She may as well be speaking for all of us as she wonders, “How do I keep the temple clean?”

“Time Passes By”
Time Passes By, 1991

Living each day for what it's worth is the message of this classic single, which has Mattea reminding us, “Time passes by. People pass on.  In the drop of a tear, they're gone.”  Her passionate vocal is intertwined with some equally compelling fiddle work, making this one of her most aurally pleasing performances.

“There Were Roses”
Celtic Crossroads (John Whelan), 1997

A heartbreaking tale of two friends who are caught in the middle of the violent conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. Isaac Scott, a Protestant, and Sean MacDonald, a Catholic, are the best of friends despite their differences, but both end up killed, with one death as revenge for the other.  Mattea can't find the moral in the story, but wonders “how many wars are fought between good friends.” She adds that “Those who give the orders, they are not the ones who die.  It's Scott, and Macdonald, and the likes of you and I.”

“Black Lung/Coal”
Coal, 2008

The chilling closing song to her stunning Coal is sung a cappella. It tells the tale of a man who is dying of the dreaded coal miner's disease, black lung. He's now been forsaken by everyone from his boss man to God himself, as “all but black lung have turned him away.”  All of the darkness that the earlier tracks have foreshadowed fully develop in this heartstopping performance.

“Where've You Been”
Willow in the Wind, 1989

Three-act songs have always been a staple of country music, dating back at least as far as The Browns classic “The Three Bells.”  Mattea's signature song is one of the best, an achingly beautiful story of a sixty-year marriage that ends in a hospital, with Claire and Edwin “in separate beds on different floors.” I still get chills every time she says “Where've you been” for the last time.

“Love Travels”
Love Travels, 1997

A tale of true love and devotion on an epic scale.   Mattea declares that despite the physical separation between her and the one she loves, “love travels the miles upon the wings of angels.”  The production is stunning, with seemingly disparate gospel and Celtic influences merging flawlessly.

As she declares that “the dream that saves me is that you're happy and you're free,” she promises “I will always be near, and I'll love you from here.”  The message is so pure, and so universal, that the people I love have drawn strength from it to deal with both a child away for college and a husband who has passed on. In a career full of inspirational and affirming performances, this is the best.



  1. No room for Jesus in the inn. And no room for “Mary, Did You Know?” on this list. I’d have put that in the top 5.

    One happy omission: no “Seeds”. Hated that song. Glad it didn’t make your cut.

    Nice list.

  2. I love Mattea’s voice. It has always seemed calming to me. I’ll admit that I don’t have a lot of her discography, but I plan to rectify the ommissions soon. Therefore, I also have to admit that I don’t know a lot of the songs on this list. I’m really glad to see “Where’ve You Been” so close to the top. “Love Travels” is great too. Of the songs I know, I like what made it onto the list and am interested in checking the others out.

    I have one question though. Is “Guns Of Love” the same song that the Moffatt’s, that group of brothers who hadn’t hit puberty yet, did sometime in the mid to late nineties?

    If so, I always thought that song had some potential to be good if done by someone who could be taken a bit more seriously…and Kathy Mattea is certainly someone who fits that description.

  3. Not big on “455 Rocket”, but I do really like “I’m On Your Side”, written by Wayne Kirkpatrick, a singer/songwriter that I like.

  4. I loved 455 Rocket too … while its not her most prolific work, I always loved the humor and Kathy’s interpretation of the lyric. Good stuff.

    Nice list overall tho. Love this feature. Oh, and I noticed your Yesterday’s Songs feature for the first time since the overhaul of the site. Love that too. Would like to see more of those.

  5. I have to agree with Dan. The introduction really captured my attention. I think that’s what Vince does for me. While he does it less than Mattea, songs like “What You Give Away” and “Worlds Apart”, which I kick myself for not including in my Favorite Songs feature, really stop to make me think about how I interract with my fellow man.

  6. “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” is my favorite followed by

    “Walk The Way The Wind Blows”
    “Lonesome Standard Time”
    “Walking Away A Winner”
    “Where’ve You Been”
    “Come From The Heart”
    “Street Talk”
    “Coal Tattoo”

    I always like Kathy, although she was never among my favorites – not quite “country enough” for my tastes, but an exquisite singer regardless

  7. I’ve always been impressed with the dignity that Mattea has displayed throughout her career. She’d made some fine music, no bells and whistles necessary, with “Love at the Five and Dime” and “Where’ve You Been” being my favorites. Special mention to “Further and Further Away”. Cheryl Wheeler penned a beautiful song about a rare subject.

  8. My faves by Kathy:

    “You’ve Got a Soft Place to Fall”
    “Untold Stories”
    “Life As We Knew It”
    “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses”
    “Where’ve You Been”
    “She Came From Fort Worth”
    “Love at the Five and Dime”
    “As Long as I Have a Heart”
    “Asking Us To Dance”

  9. I don’t know much Kathy Mattea, but I *love* Ready for the Storm. I actually discovered it through a cover version by Swedish country group Calaisa on their debut album. Lovely song!

  10. Unfortunately, as a Catholic you seem to exclude Good News, which won a Grammy, and Joy for Christmas Day, and I agree, Mary Did You Know was left out too, but you may not want to offend your readers?
    Her newer works are good, but they do not have the staying power of the older songs.

  11. Denise,

    I included “Unto Us a Child is Born”, which is from Joy For Christmas Day.

    I do enjoy “Mary, Did You Know”, but it’s not one of my 25 favorites.

    I think that “That’s All the Lumber You Sent” is as Catholic a song as I’ve ever heard, as are “Guns of Love” and “There Were Roses.” I honestly don’t think discussion of religion would offend my readers anyway.

  12. Nice list. I guess I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I liked “Seeds”. Yeah, it’s a little cheesy, but to a twelve year old, it seems so wise. I love Love at the Five and Dime, Burnin’ Old Memories and her cover of Amarillo. My favorite album was Walking Away a Winner and I haven’t purchased anything more recent since then (except for The Definitive Collection compilation) so it looks like I may have to search for a couple of these newer discs. Thanks again!

  13. I think I was wrong about Kirkpatrick writing “I’m on Your Side”, by the way. Still love it though.

  14. Michael,

    You definitely want to pick up her more recent albums. Walking Away a Winner is no place to leave off! Love Travels, Right Outta Nowhere, Roses, Coal and The Innocent Years are better than nearly all of the albums that preceded Winner.

  15. OK, I went ahead and ordered Love Travels and The Innocent Years this morning. Can’t wait to get ’em and hit play! Thanks for the recommendations.

  16. Hi Kevin, I have a quick question about your thoughts on “Standing Knee Deep…”. I guess I’ve never really interpreted it as having anything to do with the homeless. Rather, in our society we pass by so many people and don’t even bother to look them in the eye or smile. I’ve always thought this song was a commentary on that. Thoughts?

    I wonder if there are enough “homeless” songs to do a six pack. Moments, Santa, I’m Right Here, Another Day in Paradise…

    BTW, I really enjoying the Love Travels CD. Great recommendation! Thanks! :)

  17. Hey Michael,

    I think “Standing Knee Deep” is a commentary on how we can be surrounded by what we need, but we don’t get it because of our inability to recognize that it’s there, or our inability to recognize that we need to give it to others.

    I have to be honest that it was the video of Knee Deep that made me realize that it was a reference to the homeless:


  18. Ah, yes! For as much as I love this song, how have I never seen the video? It is amazing how a video can change the interpretation of a song and the homeless angle captures the meaning of the lyrics perfectly. Despite the dated clothes and hair (I also wish she had sang in the rainy room without the umbrella – that was kind of silly.), it was quite moving. Thanks for the link! Excellent Sunday morning viewing. :)

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