Album Review: Kathy Mattea — Calling Me Home

Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. | September 13th, 2012

kathymatteacallingmehomeIn 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.

5 Stars

  1. Jon
    September 13, 2012 at 8:58 am

    “Hello, My Name Is Coal” a “bluegrass ‘Sympathy For The Devil?’” I think not.

  2. Barry Mazor
    September 13, 2012 at 9:41 am

    Nice piece, Henry. Personally, “Hello, My name is Coal” reminds me more of songs like “Hello, I’m a Truck,” or even Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol.” where the usual object, this time, becomes the narrator..

  3. Ben Foster
    September 13, 2012 at 10:17 am

    I was waiting for this review! Glad to see that Henry seems to have enjoyed this album about as much as I do. I agree with just about every word.

  4. Richard
    September 13, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Looking forward to picking this up. “Coal” was brilliant.

  5. Jon
    September 13, 2012 at 10:44 am

    I agree with Barry, but that’s not what I was getting at.

    In “Sympathy For The Devil,” the devil is one-dimensional; there’s nothing to modulate his evil nature. In “Hello, My Name Is Coal,” the narrator is multi-dimensional: dirty but honest, prosperity and poverty, reviled, hope in a hopeless place, etc.; that dualism is fundamental to Cord’s take on the subject, and it permeates the song from start to finish. And as I tried to show (albeit in an inevitably compressed form) in my piece on the album for the Scene, it’s that nuanced (her word) view which motivated Mattea to record it.

    For a little more insight, see these videos from Cord’s appearance on Music City Roots last year. The first includes band introductions (including Jenee, who was helping out on that show), and then at around 2:45, goes into a recitation Cord’s been doing for years to introduce coal-related songs of his, “Old Kentucky Miners”; when I was in the band a few years ago, he used it at the front of “Hole In The Ground.” In this case, he used it to introduce “Hello, My Name Is Coal,” and the second link is to the performance.

    http://youtu.be/7BC8qcc5fGw

    http://youtu.be/WYlNJRH3QoI

    And here’s a video of a performance later in the year that features more of Cord’s regular band members, along with Jenee – note that, once again, he prefaces the song with “Old Kentucky Miners.”

    http://youtu.be/8ek6dVd6OTk

    Musical differences aside, this is attitudinally very different from – indeed, almost the exact opposite of – “Sympathy For The Devil.”

  6. Rick
    September 13, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    I’ll have to give the song snippets on Amazon a listen. Usually I gravitate more towards Kathy’s uptempo pop country songs like “455 Rocket” (and yes, I know its a Gillian Welch song) or “Nobody’s Gonna Rain On Our Parade”. I heard her sing some of these new songs on Music City Roots and the Opry recently and they were quite intriguing. I’m glad Kathy is still in the game making music she truly loves.

  7. Dave W.
    September 18, 2012 at 11:21 am

    I’ve always loved Kathy’s voice and songs right from the start. Will check this new album out. Went back yesterday and listened to “Standing Knee Deep In A River & Dying Of Thirst”. What a powerful, meaningful song. She is a great artist.

  8. Matt
    September 21, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    I think Kathy Mattea is a wonderful person and her heart is in the right place. I really want to embrace this album, but the problem is it conveys the wrong emotions. When I read the lyrics to ‘Black Waters’ (and many of the other songs), I want to call my Congress Rep and protest. I feel angry and betrayed. However, after listening to Mattea’s beautiful interpretations of these songs, I don’t feel anything. Although I think it’s impossible for Mattea to sound angry, more emotion from her could have sent a stronger message throughout the album. Heck, I might of even believe her when she says she’d buy up the county and kick out all the coal miners in “Blak Waters.” But, I don’t.

  9. Jon
    September 21, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    “However, after listening to Mattea’s beautiful interpretations of these songs, I don’t feel anything.”

    Perhaps the problem lies not with her abilities as a singer, but rather with your abilities as a listener.

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