“It’s About a Great Song”: Kathy Mattea and the Music of the Mountains
Thomas Wolfe was wrong: you can go home again. At least if you’re West Virginian Kathy Mattea, who returned to the folk music of the Appalachians in 2008 with the release of critically-acclaimed roots album, Coal. New record Calling Me Home (out tomorrow on Sugar Hill Records) finds Mattea singing the music of her home state once more. It’s a stunning collection, with Mattea’s rich alto covering songs written by artists including Alice Gerrard, Jean Ritchie, and the late Hazel Dickens. We got the chance to talk with Mattea about the new album as well as the chain of events that led her to record Appalachian music.
Juli Thanki: You’re a West Virginia native, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that you started singing about the land and the mines. What led to that shift?
Kathy Mattea: There had been a big mine disaster in West Virginia in early 2006. There were miners trapped for days and the whole country was following the story. I was emotionally torn up about it, and I was kind of baffled by that. I didn’t know any of those people; I’d never been to Sago. At a certain point, a friend said, “You know, Kathy, this is what music is good for: helping us through grief we don’t understand.”
So I thought, “Maybe that was what I’ll do with this grief I can’t categorize. I’ll make a record about coal mining and channel it all there.” That took me back to this whole body of work written about coal, and that took me deep into the Appalachian tradition. I grew up hearing it when I was a kid, but there was nobody to teach me that music. I got taught any random bit about music that anybody would teach me. But that was a missing piece, and it was just so rich. Not to be clichéd about it, but it felt like coming home on some level. When it came to the next record, I didn’t want to stop; I wanted to keep exploring.
JT: You’re involved in raising awareness about the environmental effects of mountaintop removal mining and strip mining, and many songs on these last two records reflect that. Can you tell us more about your environmental activism?
KM: When I was a kid, I was in Scouts and we had a cabin in the woods up in the mountains. I spent a lot of time spelunking in caves and hiking all over, so I really got to know the essence of the place. My parents passed a lot of that down to me. They really knew all the mountains around where they grew up. That way of being, I really feel like I got in on the end of it. There are people still really attached to a sense of place, but we all kind of remembered it from our parents. I really wanted to celebrate that with Calling Me Home.
When Sago happened, around the same time I saw Al Gore give his slideshow. This was before the movie, An Inconvenient Truth, came out. I was blown away by what I saw. I was really moved. I found out he was going to train 1,000 people in the U.S. to give this slideshow as a service project, so I signed up for the first training class. I trained to give the slideshow and realized pretty quickly that if I was going to get involved in this, it would open a conversation about coal. Musically I was being led into coal as a subject, and with this service project, I was also being led into coal as a subject; suddenly, everything became an aspect of the same conversation. It felt more like I was being led into something than making any personal decision. Everything I said “Yes” to led me back to the same point.
JT: You’ve got great songwriters on here. How did you choose the material?
KM: I found “Black Waters” and “Now is the Cool of the Day” just as I finished Coal, so I was hanging on to them. I sang them a lot. I did a workshop with Tim O’Brien at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival and we focused on songs about West Virginia, so I dug out “West Virginia Mine Disaster” and fell in love with the song, so that was the core of the album. “West Virginia, My Home” was kind of a no-brainer, and then I just started digging. The opening song is called “A Far Cry,” written by Michael Dowling. I heard it sitting on a porch in the mountains of North Carolina late one night while we were all teaching at the Swannanoa Gathering.
People would mention different songs to me. Si Kahn told me about “Gone, Gonna Rise Again.” I was telling him about how I wanted the theme of the album to be about people and their attachment to and reverence for the land. He said, “I have this song I wrote years ago about generations on the same land.” I said, “That’s what I want to capture.” So he sent me that one. It just kept opening up from there.
JT: Were there any songs you found that didn’t make the final cut?
KM: I recorded every song that I had on my list. There was one I could not perform in a way that made me decide that I passed my own audition. It was “Pretty Bird.” I love that tune. I found a way into it, but I never felt completely convinced. It is really hard to cover Hazel Dickens. She is so pure. It takes some guts to cover Hazel’s work.
JT: “Requiem for a Mountain” is such a gorgeous instrumental. How did that come about?
KM: I have a friend who is an activist working on mountaintop removal issues in West Virginia. He pulled me aside and said, “I keep imagining a symphony playing the sound of a mountain being blown up. I don’t know how you would do that, but it keeps haunting me.” I started talking to Bill Cooley who has been my bandleader and friend and musical cohort for many years; he’s a genius who writes these beautiful instrumental pieces on guitar. I told him about the idea and he said, “Let me mess with that and see what I can come up with.” So he’d bring it back and I’d say, “I’m feeling like it’s too long here and this part can come out,” and we just worked on it like that. It was a bit of a collaboration: he wrote all of the music and it really is his piece, but he deferred to me for guidance, which was beautiful.
I got to do a benefit with Barbara Kingsolver, the wonderful novelist, in Knoxville this year. I put pictures to this song and showed it as a slideshow and Bill played the music underneath; it was very moving.
JT: What was the recording process like?
KM: We got everybody into the same room. We did a little separation with baffles, but everybody had a visual on each other. We recorded it live, basically, and then we would overdub – if Stuart Duncan played mandolin, then he would overdub a fiddle part. Sometimes Bryan Sutton would play mandolin and Stuart would play fiddle; that would all go down live. We were trying to capture just the art of performance. I had done lots of woodshedding with Bill working on arrangements for each song, so we had our basic map already laid out. We would talk a lot about how each piece should feel. These guys are really deep players, beautiful musicians who’ve been steeped in this music, so a lot of it was just getting out of their way and letting them bring the full weight of their immersion in this tradition to each song. It was like sitting at the feet of the masters, like “Here’s a song; I’m going to sing along with y’all.”
JT: You’ve got some fantastic guest vocalists on there too, like Tim O’Brien and Emmylou Harris.
KM: I did a benefit last year at the Ryman Auditorium with everybody from Dave Matthews to Alison Krauss. I did “Black Waters” at that gathering; Emmylou and Patty Loveless sang with me on that, so when it came time to record the song for the album, I called them up and they both said “yes.” I was thrilled to get that moment preserved, because it was a sweet moment to get to do that with them.
JT: You’re making some of the best music of your career, but the mainstream airplay and major label support you had earlier in your career isn’t there. Is that frustrating at times?
KM: Not really. I feel like I had a great ride when I got to do that. Allen Reynolds produced my early records and he would say, “Just find a great song, pal. It’s about a great song sung honestly and well-framed. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s about anything else.” I got this lovely ride through the middle of commercial music with songs that were mostly about true stories and framed simply and comfortably. In many ways, this music is very similar. I’ve found that if I can stay connected to the music, then I get led where I’m supposed to go. If I connect to it, there are other people that will connect to it. At the end of the day, that’s always been my goal, to make some connection through music. So for me, it’s very sweet right now. I feel powerful in my voice these days. I feel like there’s a low end that’s come in that adds some gravitas to the subject matter. I don’t think I could have sung these songs when I was 20. So it feels really rich to me. I just don’t feel frustrated, and I’m really grateful about that because I know that’s not true for everybody.
JT: Is the musical path you’ve gone down with Coal and Calling Me Home one you’ll continue down?
KM: Each record leads into the next one. This feels right for me right now. I don’t know what will happen next. I have to let a record bloom, go out and play it, live with the songs and live with people’s response to them before I can think of what to do next, but I do imagine being in this roots world for the duration. It’s where the juice is for me right now.
JT: You’ve won awards and had No. 1 singles, but are there any goals you still want to accomplish?
KM: I was thinking about that not too long ago. I’m not a goal-oriented person; I don’t have a list. But the one thing I’d love to do is sing at Carnegie Hall one time. It’s just a little side thing that would be a sweet moment. I’ve gotten a lot of peak experiences and a lot of things that were like, “Wow. That’s one for the bucket list.” But for me, at the end of the day, I want to enjoy every show I sing, because I know that there will be a point when I don’t do it any more, for one reason or another. I just don’t want to waste anything. I want to savor every bit of what I get to do. And that makes every show sweet in its own way.
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