She has never had a movie made about her. No Sissy Spacek to portray her. But, like Loretta Lynn who has, Kathy Mattea has a familial heritage that stretches back to America’s coal-mining regions. And a musical heritage and style that, like Lynn, includes country and gospel, but woven in with folk and bluegrass.
Suzy Bogguss, Alison Krauss, Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills and Nash are just a few of the artists with whom Kathy has collaborated. In her 28 years on the music scene, she has recorded 30 hit singles and 17 albums, including Goin’ Gone, Come From the Heart, 18 Wheels and A Dozen Roses, Burnin’ Old Memories, and Where’ve You Been.
And winning two Grammys for her efforts, the first in 1990 for Best Female Country Vocal (Where’ve You Been), the second in 1993 for the gospel-oriented Christmas album Good News.
On the way to becoming a star, Kathy joined a West Virginia University bluegrass band, dropped out of WVU, moved to Nashville, worked as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame, backed-up Bobby Goldsboro on vocals, and sang demos for songwriters and publishers.
She is no stranger to hard work; it’s in her genes.
Raised near Charleston, West Virginia, Kathy’s mining heritage is thick: both her grandfathers were miners, both her parents grew up in coal camps, and her mother worked for the local miner’s union. Her father was saved from the mines by an uncle who paid his way through college.
Oddly, she wasn’t exposed to much traditional mountain music. But when she was 19 years old she heard Dark as a Dungeon and began quietly cataloging mining and mountain songs she would someday record.
When Kathy was about nine, 78 miners were killed in The Farmington Disaster, near Fairmont, West Virginia. In 2006 the Sago Mine Disaster killed 12 West Virginia miners. “I thought, ‘Now is the time to do these songs’,” Kathy remembers.” The Sago disaster propelled Kathy back in her memory to what she had felt at that moment in her life, and she thought, “‘I need to do something with this emotion, and maybe this album is the place to channel it’. And so I knew the time was right.”
The album was COAL.
It was a life-altering decision, one that would forever change the way Kathy thought about music and singing. “This record reached out and took me. It called to me to be made,” Kathy states. “If you go through your life and you try to be open, you try to think how can you be of service, how can your gifts best be used in the world…if you ask that question everyday, you find yourself at the answer. And it’s not always what you thought it would be when you asked.”
She found herself discovering a part of herself she had never known before. “I had to unlearn a lot about singing. These songs are about getting out of the way; it’s about being with the song, opening a space and letting the song come through you.”
“I wanted some labor songs, some songs that articulated the lifestyle, the bigger struggles, and I wanted a wide variety musically,” Kathy notes. “Most of all, I wanted it to speak to the sense of place and the sense of attachment people have to each other and to the land.” She chose songs by such celebrated songwriters as Jean Ritchie, Billy Edd Wheeler, Hazel Dickens, Si Kahn, Utah Phillips, Merle Travis, and Darrell Scott.
Kathy says she’s had good luck picking songs because she goes with her gut. “I’ve found so much of my voice through interpreting other people’s songs, it’s like a marriage,” Kathy remarks. “I’m breathing something into the song, collaborating with the writers on bringing something forth.”
Kathy has played with guitarist Bill Cooley for 20 years and calls him “my silent partner, my unspoken collaborator on everything I do… I have been orbiting around him, musically, for a long time.”
Kirk Albrecht at minor7th.com describes Cooley as “… a guitarists guitarist, like Vince Gill, who seems to be at home in most any style.”
Versatility, the hallmark of any busy sideman, has been the stock in trade of a career that has seen Bill touring and recording with the likes of country icon Merle Haggard, country-pop diva Reba McEntire, traditionalist Alan Jackson and rockin’ singer-songwriter Hal Ketchum, as well as the eclectic, genre-crossing Mattea.
A native of Santa Barbara, CA, Bill moved to Nashville in 1985. A dozen years later he was called “one of Nashville’s most respected sidemen” by Guitar Player Magazine.
A native of Nashville, David Spicher is the son of session fiddle king Buddy Spicher. He has performed with Crystal Gayle, Pam Tillis, the Jerry Douglas Band, Carolina Rain, Jim Lauderdale, Nickel Creek, polka queen Lynn Marie, the Nashville Symphony, John England & the Western Swingers, and his family’s own Nashville Swing Band.
Eamonn O’Rourke (fiddle, mandolin, vocals) was born in County Donegal, Ireland. In 1993, Eamonn moved to New York. Working with a wide variety of artists throughout the United States and Canada, he was blessed with the chance to study with the great Mark O’Connor and cultivated a successful career as a session musician.
On Friday, May 4 and Saturday, May 5 at 8pm in the Schuster Center, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra will present Kathy Mattea: From the Heart, the final concert in this season’s SuperPops series, featuring Kathy, Bill, David, and Eamonn.
And quite a few other musicians on vocals.
“I think there’s a mystery there,“ Kathy says, “that somewhere in me, in my DNA, there’s my great grandmother singing, and my grandmother, and my people, singing through me, with me.”