Kathy Mattea has always let her heart be her guide.
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From leaving her native West Virginia for Nashville at 19, through the musical journey to her new album, ROSES, the two-time Grammy winner and multiple CMA and ACM award winner has followed a path of discovery that has never led her astray. "I've always thought that if I can learn to listen to my heart and make music from there, everything else will take care of itself." And so it has.
Her breakthrough album, Walk The Way The Wind Blows (1986), established her as a fast-rising star. "At the time I broke through, country music had narrowed so much," she recalls. "I was part of an influx of a kind of new breed, where the format opened up to a more rootsy sound in order to survive". Kathy's hits from the album, including the title track, brought a critically- acclaimed breath of fresh air to country music alongside singles from fellow left-of-center pioneers like Nanci Griffith (who wrote Kathy's first Top 10 hit, Love At The Five And Dime), Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett.
In late 1987 she released her first #1 single, Goin' Gone, and the next year saw the issue of the modern classic, Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses, which won both the Country Music Association's and Academy of Country Music's Single Of The Year award. In 1989 and 1990 she won an ACM and two CMA awards as Female Vocalist of the Year. Recording the tender Where've You Been, co-written by her Grammy-winning songwriter/husband, Jon Vezner, earned Kathy the 1990 Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. That same year saw her recognized for her first gold album, Willow In The Wind.
Throughout the '90s, Kathy's successes continued, charting still more singles and releasing three gold albums. In addition, she released the platinum-selling A Collection Of Hits, and a long-awaited Christmas album, Good News, which earned Kathy her second Grammy, this time in the Gospel category.
Making several trips to Scotland during the early '90s, Kathy discovered her spiritual musical home. There she found music and people she loved, including inspiration and friendship from singer/songwriter Dougie MacLean. "His way of blending traditional Scottish instruments and melodies with the contemporary is pure brilliance." Beginning with Time Passes By, which features a MacLean composition, and continuing through the genre-blurring Love Travels, her new-found creative passions took her recordings into ever-broadening musical territory. " I always want to push myself creatively. It's one thing to carve a niche for yourself, but quite another to keep searching for what moves you as an artist. To record another album exactly like all the others just wasn't making me wake up in the morning, rarin’ to go.
"It's so thrilling to think about music with a fresh, clean slate: no rules, just to do moves me in this moment." Kathy wanted creative freedom, and she’s found it with Narada Records. "I was always looking for a place like Narada, where it just feels right. They are so well respected, and we have a great synergy going on. Its like we are all on the same wavelength.
"Sometimes it can be a little frightening leaving what one knows so well. But these changes are exactly what make you grow as an artist — and most importantly — as a person. Life is a series of landmarks, and I've always tried to convey the internal and spiritual lessons learned by them in my music. It's a way of connecting your past to the future."
ROSES, her Narada debut, includes songs, instruments, and musicians that Kathy's been yearning to bring together for years. She describes the music of ROSES as "contemporary folk with a Celtic twist", and it features Kathy's powerfully tender voice alongside cajones, accordion, whistle, fiddles, mandolin, and even a pie pan. Many of the songs on the album, like the upbeat I'm Alright, are favorite treasures that Kathy has wanted to record for some time. Others, like They Are The Roses, are stunning new finds. But in each case, the songs speak directly from Kathy's heart, resonating with her and out to her audience.
Searching for a producer for the new album, Kathy wanted to find someone from the enormous talent pool living in Nashville. Remembering sitting in her office late one night, she recalls looking up and asking God for some help, "I said that I was willing to work hard on this record and be a good steward for these songs, but I need some help here!" The following day, she received an email from a bandmate mentioning that Ed Cash (whose work with Bebo Norman Kathy had admired) had just moved to Nashville. "The very next afternoon, Ed was sitting on my couch and we started talking about the new album."
"It's been great working with her," Ed notes. "She's laid-back but professional…she's at the top of understanding her craft. She lets the musicians be creative, and the collaborative nature of the recording sessions was fantastic." The feelings of admiration are mutual. Kathy mentions that when working with someone new, it takes time to get comfortable. But with Ed, it was an easy transition. "Ed has that rare gift of creating the perfect studio atmosphere for musicians — a place where their musical ideas are respected and included, but there's still someone gently steering the ship."
After hearing the song They Are The Roses quite by chance, Kathy remembers almost falling out of her chair. The song hits a chord for so many people, no matter their age or background. "Doesn't it seem like every generation loses more innocence? This song really makes me think about what kind of world they will live in, and how we can make it better. We've got to stop just reacting to the world, and start acting on it." Ed calls They Are The Roses, "a hit for the heart. After hearing just a few bars of it, my wife was in tears…so was I".
One of Kathy’s and Ed's favorite songs is I'm Alright, penned by Kim Richey. "We both, independently, have loved this song for a while," she notes. "Its folk-roots sound reminds me so much of The Band's classic, The Weight, and it has a very important, self-affirming message."
"The amount of clutter and extraneous information we have to field every day is enormous," Kathy says referring to the themes on the cut Junkyard. I've tried to create more space mentally, to process what happens in my life each day." Junkyard has an almost defiant tone, with an electronic loop simmering under a percussive overlay (complete with pie pan!), courtesy of master percussionist Jim Brock. On That’s All The Lumber You Sent, Ed and Dan Needham complement their percussion with foot stomps and hand jive, mixed with a healthy dose of Chris Carmichael's fiddle and Tim Lauer's accordion. Strong rhythmic elements also lend a sense of conviction to Guns of Love, a beautiful statement of the power of love over anger.
One of the most poignant stories on the album is told on Ashes in the Wind, a song originally begun almost 10 years ago. Written by Jon Vezner and only recently completed, it was inspired by a friend who died too young. With Joanie Madden's sensitive whistle setting the perfect bittersweet mood, Kathy feels the song can be an allegory for our lives in general, and a call for us to cherish the time we have here on earth.
Strong messages are important to Kathy "I want to make a record that moves me. It's amazing at concerts to hear fans come up to me afterwards and say, 'that happened to me', or 'I know exactly how that felt'. If I can make that connection with my audience, I've done what I set out to do."
Interacting on this very personal level is one of the many things that makes Kathy Mattea seem like a part of the family for so many of her fans. Her upcoming tour takes her to performing arts centers and theatres around the country. "These places are my favorite kinds of rooms. The audience can hear every word, and I can hear them when they talk back to me."
When all is said and done, the themes of life's victories, large and small, and the spiritual struggles they portray, are the threads that run through Kathy's music. On ROSES, her message to all of us is to "treasure the moment and enjoy the journey, wherever it may take us."
Words to live by.
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