Kathy Mattea lives through the innocent years

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.

"I found the song," she says of the off-handed, humorous take by Don Henry and Craig Carothers on losing love and then finding it again with a waitress. "I couldn't wait to play it live. I remember how it was live playing gigs in coffeehouses on my guitar. I would look for songs like that."

"I thought it should be on the record, but I couldn't figure out how to sequence it so I added it as a bonus track. What I found (was) people see it as an emotional release after this very introspective album."

Never exactly a prolific writer, Mattea wrote two songs for the album - the title track and "Callin' My Name" - with husband Jon Vezner and friend Sally Barris.

"I've been wanting to get back to writing for several years," she says.

"I did a workshop on creativity and expression. I didn't do a lot of songwriting, but I started the process again. It became great therapy for me when I was going through this stuff for my folks. I feel real safe with Jon and Sally. It was a natural thing."

"It's hard to make space to write with all the distractions of being an artist. You really have to cut out some quiet time. I had not paid attention to it in a long time. I think of myself as a singer who writes, not a writer who sings."

As for writing with her husband, she said the process was "not always easy. You walk in the room with all the underlying stuff of your relationship. Learning to leave that outside the door has been a real challenge for me, but I've been getting better at it."

The songs maintain a personal touch, even though Mattea did not write most of them. In fact, the songs sound almost as if they could have been written specifically for her.

Mattea says she has no problem singing such personal songs.

"I think it feels very natural to me. My albums have always been a reflection of where I am in my life. I'm not someone different than when I'm not doing music. I do it from my own perspective. I don't want to put a mask on. I want my mask to be true to who I am as a person. I'd never do a cheating song. I don't want to sing it, promote it every night, live there."

Mattea was born in the small town of Cross Lanes, West Va. It's so small, it's not even in the atlas. Closest suburb is Nitro where Mattea went to high school. Her father was a supervisor for Monsanto.

"We had a great childhood. Your pretty typical all-American life. On Halloween, you'd take off, and no one would care where you were. You knew who would give you the good candy. If your house got egged, you knew who did it. It was a small town."

Her musical oats were sewn as a tyke. She started on piano at 6 and guitar at 10.

"I was this kind of prodigy child," she says matter of factly. "I went into school in the first grade, and I could read and do arithmetic. They double promoted me in the second grade. When they tested me at the board of education, my mom said, 'what do I do with her?' They said, 'just don't let her get bored, or she won't care about anything.' She put me in choir and ice skating. The only thing that didn't bore me was music things."

"It was where I found myself. It's where I found who I was," Mattea says.

She sure didn't get her musical talents from her mother. "My mother can't carry a tune to save her soul. "

"Mom was into top 40 radio, and dad listened to Big Band. My brothers listened to rock and roll and popular music. I remember my brother Mike getting the first James Taylor album. That influenced me."

"I played folk music in church," she says. "We had folk masses at the Catholic church. I was a sponge."

"A friend of mine's father had a bluegrass band, and I got into college and that's where I got into bluegrass and country music. They changed my life."

Besides playing in Pennsboro, Mattea studied engineering, physics and chemistry at the University of West Virginia.

Mattea dated one of the band members, who was graduating with a masters and heading south to Nashville.

He invited Mattea to come.

"It struck me that if he was in Nashville getting famous and I was stuck in school, I would never forgive myself. It took me a couple of months to make a decision."

"I was the whiz kid of my family, and they were not very happy when I quit, but I felt like I had an opportunity and I could do school in my sleep. School was the easiest thing for me so I could always come back to it."

"I thought 'here I am in school. I don't know if I want to be an engineer. If it doesn't work out, maybe I'll have more of an idea of who I am.'"

"I was on the track of getting the degree, having the kids," says Mattea. "This was something that was totally out of the box."

Sept. 2, 1978 found Mattea hitting Music City for good.

The relationship with the boyfriend did not last, but it did with the city. Mattea stuck it out doing a series of jobs including a stint as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame, waitressing at Friday's and being a secretary at an insurance firm.

"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."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com