Album Review: Kathy Mattea — Calling Me Home
In some way, Kathy Mattea has always been trying to get back home. Her songs have tracked restless journeys of yearning (“Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses”) as well as lives buffeted by the storms of life (“Walk the Way the Wind Blows”) and tossed on the rough waters of loss and love (“Where’ve You Been?”).
With this haunting, powerful new album, which picks up where the Grammy-nominated Coal leaves off, she comes home to her native West Virginia hills, arriving broken-hearted over the pock-marked destruction and unforgettable death that coal mining has brought to her home state, yet testifying to its everlasting natural beauty and the resilience of the land. The plaintive high whine of a fiddle kicks off the album with Michael and Janet Dowling’s “A Far Cry,” and we’re traveling with Mattea down a “ribbon of lonesome” to “that valley that was closer to heaven/than any place this poor fool’s been.” In the very next song, Si Kahn’s lilting Gaelic ballad “Gone, Gonna Rise Again,” Mattea recalls the hope her grandfather invested in the land before he died and the power of the land to restore its bounty as the “new wood springs from the roots in the ground.”
Mattea artfully slides a hauntingly spare ballad that laments the loss of human life in a mining accident, “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” between two even sparer elegiac paeans to the wood thrush (Laurie Lewis’s “The Wood Thrush’s Song”), whose song no longer fills the woods, and the maple (Lewis’s “The Maple’s Lament”), whose branches are no longer full of birds or the “song that the sunlight sang while dancing in its leaves.” In “Hello, My Name is Coal” (written by Larry Cordle and Jeneé Fleenor), a bluegrass “Sympathy for the Devil,” coal takes a moment to introduce itself as “the king/some say I’m a savior/some say death is what I bring.” Patty Loveless and Emmylou Harris join Mattea on Jean Ritchie’s “Black Waters,” a farmer’s lament about the “scenes of destruction on every hand” and his dream of one day driving out the coal company, cleaning the streams, and watching “clear waters run through my land.” With the voices of angels, Mattea and Alison Krauss welcome a soul, body crippled by work and life, to “new freedom’s shore” in Alice Gerrard’s “Agate Hill,” with a tune that recalls the traditional folk song “The Water is Wide.”
If Mattea’s warm, waltz-like version of Hazel Dickens’s “West Virginia, My Home” is not the West Virginia state song, it should be. Mattea’s gorgeous alto, her terrific song choices and the outstanding musicians—ranging from her long-time guitarist Bill Cooley to mandolinist Bryan Sutton and fiddler Stuart Duncan, among others—who join her, and her deep love and passion for her home state call us home with her to the place where we can almost smell the honeysuckle vines with her. One thing’s for sure: Kathy Mattea is home.
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