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Kathy Mattea

Calling Me Home – 2012 (Sugar Hill)

Reviewed by Donald Teplyske

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CDs by Kathy Mattea

As a commercially successful country artist during the '80s and '90s, Kathy Mattea hit the top 20 with no fewer than 21 singles, and although she last reached the top 10 almost 2 decades ago with Walking Away a Winner, she has continually produced high quality music that has become more engaging with each release.

"Calling Me Home" picks up fairly close to where 2008's outstanding "Coal" left off. The Cross Lanes, West Va. native continues to mine the experiences that have - for better or worse and for generations - shaped her home area. The musical approach is largely acoustic with electric guitar appearing selectively. While some have identified "Calling Me Home" as bluegrass, that identification is by almost any definition inaccurate. Rather, Mattea's first Sugar Hill release is most obviously folk-infused Appalachian country music, punctuated as it is by mournful fiddle, stellar acoustic guitar playing, atmospheric banjo and mandolin and some of the finest harmony singing heard in the past year.

Within a collection teeming with riches, the album's highpoint may come mid-set as Mattea, in her distinctive and always impressive voice, tears into Larry Cordle's (and Jeneé Fleenor's) Hello, My Name is Coal. This song, whose meandering melody brings to mind the seams of coal hidden under the hills and fields that populate most of "Calling Me Home's" songs, is both dark and generous, much as coal is described throughout its three minutes.

Alice Gerrard has three of her songs contained within "Calling Me Home's" dozen tracks including the gentle elegy Agate Hill featuring harmony from Alison Krauss. As on "Coal," two Jean Ritchie credits and a Hazel Dickens song are included; Mattea captures the conflict of Dickens' West Virginia, My Home while Ritchie's West Virginia Mining Disaster and Black Waters are given the due these classic pieces deserve.

The pleasant surprise is the inclusion of two marvelous Laurie Lewis songs of changing times The Maple's Lament and The Wood Thrush's Song. Sad songs, those.

Kathy Mattea has produced an album that exceeds the masterpiece "Coal" by retaining that album's high standards while broadening its vision to encompass a wider Appalachian experience within a commercially palatable artistic statement.