By Jeffrey B. Remz, June 2000
"Anybody who wants to be a country star should have to work at the Hall of Fame first," says Mattea. "I learned so much there. I discovered Bob Wills there. I had learned to play Travis style guitar when I was 10, but my teacher never told me why it was called Travis style picking." (It was named after guitar great Merle Travis)
Mattea even hung out during her lunch break watching old movies.
"It was awesome." she says of the films kept in a back room. "I would watch them over and over on my lunch hour."
Mattea worked at the Hall of Fame for about a year, "until I almost lost my voice, and I had to get out."
"I came and played writers' nights, and I saw publishers during the day, and I wrote songs. As things progressed. Eventually, I could make my living doing studio work."
"I did some jingles, some background work, but mostly demos," she says. Demos are rough versions of songs that are pitched to artists to record.
The demo work attracted interest from Mercury Records, which inked her to a contract in 1983. Her first album, the self-titled "Kathy Mattea" came out in 1984 followed by "From My Heart," the following year, and "Walk the Way the Wind Blows" in 1986.
"I was encouraged," says Mattea. "It wasn't easy, but I believed in myself, and I had people I respected believe in me. There was a sense that I was fighting the good fight."
The third album finally yielded her first hit, Nanci Griffith's "Love at the Five and Dime," which reached number three.
That broke open the doors for a slew of hits, including her first number one, "Goin' Gone," in 1987, one of her signature songs, "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses," the following year (the song won the Country Music Association single of the year) and subsequent number ones "Come From the Heart" and "Burnin' Old Memories," both in 1989.
That was a very hot period for Mattea, winning CMA female vocalist of the year in 1989 and 1990.
In fact, Mattea landed 15 straight singles in the top 10 between 1986 and 1991.
Mattea almost didn't think "Eighteen Wheels..." was for her.
"A friend who worked at a publishing company was sending out composite tapes of writers," she says. "He would send them out every couple of weeks. I started listening to this tape and I thought these guys wrote from a completely different perspective. They were brothers, and I thought their stuff was really fresh. So, I took it to Allen. We listened to a couple of songs and he thought they were interesting. '18 Wheels' was the third song. He stopped the tape, and he said "isn't that great? I said, who should we pitch that too - how about you? - It was a trucking song. It never even crossed my mind."
Mattea's other signature song is "Where've You Been." The song wasn't a big smash on the charts - it only reached number 10 in 1989, but fans really relate to the song written by Vezner.
A loving relationship between husband and wife (actually Vezner's grandparents) through the years - even in their later years in a nursing home - is recounted in a touching song where Mattea's voice shines.
"I was afraid. I didn't want to kill his career, and he didn't want to kill mine," Mattea says. "It took me awhile to come around on that song. I knew the story. I was afraid that people wouldn't get it and that it would break his heart. Finally, I went to a writer's night where he played it, and it brought the entire room to tears. I thought 'oh my God. I can't be objective about that song. This is a monster.' I just decided at that point. I had to do."
Mattea enjoyed intermittent commercial success in the Nineties with only three songs making the top 10, including "Walking Away a Winner."
She also wasn't exactly prolific when it came to releasing new albums either with "Time Passes By" in 1991, "Walking Away A Winner" in 1994 and "Love Travels" in 1996.
She also suffered vocal chord problems, requiring surgery. Mattea has had no problems with her voice since then.
"I warm up religiously. I pace myself. I say no, and I take care of myself. When all that happened to me, I (started) an exercise program that I'm also religious about."
Through musical and personal ups and downs, Mattea retains her optimism and sense of self both in interview and in concert.
"It seems to me that even when I try to make a record straight down the middle, it comes off slightly left of center," Mattea says. "I have to try to remember the market I'm making a record for and be honest to who I am at the same time, and that's what I try to do."