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Kathy Mattea lives through the innocent years

By Jeffrey B. Remz, June 2000

Being away from the music scene without new albums for fans for four years can be an eternity. Tastes change. New acts come on the scene. What was time off could turn into a permanent vacation.

Of course, Kathy Mattea hopes her new CD, "The Innocent Years," will put her back in the limelight again and push aside those concerns.

"It crosses your mind, but I think the easiest way to stifle your creativity is to put fear into the mix," she says about the break in a telephone interview from her Nashville home. "I can't make records out of fear. I can't be looking over my shoulder. My job is the same - making the best record I can at that time in my life. If it can't find an audience, then I should be doing something else."

The record veers more towards the folky side of Mattea than country, although that clearly is present. And she does not give into the impulse to go for the current vogue of recording a pop album masquerading as country.

Kathy Mattea performs at taping of "The Western Beat with Billy Block" in March, photo courtesy of Country Music Television.

Mattea, 41 in June, says she wanted to "make a record that sort of married the commercial side of my music with the artist side of my music, and that was my goal. I think there's more of me on this album than any other album I've ever made."

"I did a lot of the recording in my basement with no co-producer present. I did a lot of the mixing and mastering on my own, and I really took responsiblity from writing some of the songs all the way down the line."

"Allen Reynolds (producer of her first albums and best known for his work with Garth Brooks) told me years ago told me I need to know the entire process of making a record from day one," says Mattea. "He just gave me an education. I like being there for every note."

"I don't think I'm a control freak," she says. "Some things I'm willing to turn over to other people and some things I speak right up. It's a collaborative process."

Mattea co-produced the album with Ben Wisch and Keith Stegall.

"This record was great therapy for me during a difficult time in my life," she says. "I think it's the most personal record I've ever made."

The difficult time focused on her parents, both of whom had been ill. Her father was diagnosed with color cancer, which metastasized to his liver. This was the fourth time he had cancer.

"At one point, he was given only few months to live," Mattea says. "But, ultimately, he was cancer free."

During the illness, Mattea often returned to West Virginia to be with her parents and siblings.

The album was a long time in coming with stops and starts in the studio due to the illnesses.

"I got part way through the process, and all of this started happening in my world. When you are dealing with serious illness and death and the possibility of death, helping someone process their life and trying to get a handle on a perspective on a whole life, you can't help but do that with your own life. I spent a lot of time thinking about what's important to me. I think this is an album about those things."

"If it's about love, it's about the real deal. If it's about how do I spend my time, am I making myself. It's an album of 'if not now, when?'"

"My whole family was really very supportive of my parents - that's my brothers and my cousins and my aunts. My family is wonderful. It's circling the wagons when crisis when crisis hits. It was everything - I had one brother who took the financial reigns.

Mattea says she helped set up "long-term care situations to dealing with doctors to sitting and talking about God and just listening to stories over and over again or making lists of things that needed to be done...It was my job to write them down because he thought he wouldn't be there to do it any more. There were lots of late nights spent talking about the meaning of life."

The recording process was done in stops and starts, and while not ideal, Mattea thinks she may have ultimately benefitted from the unusual method.

"We would record some - then some medical crisis would happen, and I would stop for a month or two," Mattea says. "There were times when I stopped for three months at a time."

"It was interesting because I had a chance to get a perspective on a lot of the songs and live with them," Mattea says. "I wouldn't have set it up that way, but I think the record is a better piece of work for the extra time."

"There was a point where I decided to focus the album tighter," Mattea says. "I made a conscious choice to drop some songs and really try to go more with a theme."

Mattea bagged about half a dozen songs "that weren't living well with me, songs that I had any doubt. If I felt like I was doing it from my head and not my heart I dropped it."

The funniest song on the album hands down is "BFD," a bonus track. During a stop at a Borders in-store in Boston, the song drew the most enthusiastic from the crowd.

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