Mattea celebrates Appalachian songs and culture in Calling Me Home
By John Mark Rafacz
When 19-year-old Kathy Mattea moved from West Virginia to Nashville, her first job in Tennessee was at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The museum owned a collection of movies, and Mattea had a key to the film projector. Many of the movies featured old-school country and western singers such as Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, and Bob Wills. But Mattea was drawn to one movie in particular.
“There was a film of Merle Travis singing ‘Dark as a Dungeon,’ and I would go watch this film on my lunch hour every day,” Mattea says. Travis, born and raised in Kentucky, wrote a lot of songs about coal miners, including the classic “Sixteen Tons.” Both of Mattea’s grandfathers had been miners.
“I remember thinking, Merle Travis is singing about my grandfathers. This is what it was like for them,” she says. “It really made an impression on me, and I sort of filed that song away in the back of my mind.”
Occasionally she would recall the song, but Mattea was busy with a commercial career that twice brought her recognition as Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year.
“I would think, I want to make a record about home, or being from West Virginia, or being from the mountains,” she says. “But I couldn’t get it to gel.”
Perhaps fittingly, Mattea, who makes her Center for the Performing Arts debut February 1 in a concert focused on songs from her recent album Calling Me Home, found the bridge to the music of her roots because of a mine disaster.
“I was just torn up about it, and I was shocked at how torn up I was about it. I’d randomly burst into tears for these people that I’d never met,” she says. “When they had the public funeral for the miners that had died — this was the Sago Mine disaster in 2006 — we were asked to do something for the Larry King show, sort of a piece of music to end their show with when they were covering this funeral.”
Mattea spent that day talking with other musicians.
“A friend of mine said, ‘You know, Kathy, this is what music is good for — processing emotions we don’t always understand, and kind of getting us into our grief,’ ” she recalls. “And I thought, well, maybe that’s what I’ll do with all of this feeling that I have that I don’t understand. I’ll just make a record about coal mining, and then I’ll get it out of my system.”
The singer envisioned a small side project exploring a bit of coal country history.
“I thought the songs would be sort of simple, and kind of dark, and a little boring,” says Mattea, who soon realized her ‘side project’ was becoming a life-altering experience.
Her first step toward discovering the vast trove of Appalachian roots music, much of it influenced by Celtic and English traditions, became her Grammy-nominated 2008 release, Coal.
“It changed the way I think about my own family story, and the way I think about singing songs, and the way I was able to see how music can be used to help people remember history, and heal, and communicate with each other,” she says. “It was like finding some new chunk of music that had been missing, and so I wanted to make this [follow-up] record [Calling Me Home] as a deepening of that exploration.”
Calling Me Home, released in September 2012, celebrates the folk music and culture of Appalachia. Mattea, who collected fifteen consecutive top-ten hits and four number-one singles on the country charts, has gathered songs of bravery, pride, joy, and grief that speak of life in the world’s oldest mountains.
“In eleven well-chosen covers, West Virginia native Kathy Mattea sings eloquently about the complicated relationship between the people of Appalachia and the land they’ve long loved but also abused,” writes an Associated Press critic. “It’s a place where the roots are deep, and the scars are, too. Residents of the region have often sung about such things, but seldom better than Mattea does here. Her commanding alto gracefully bears the weighty subject matter, whether she’s singing about wildlife or the afterlife.”
“These songs have been chosen with insight and love, rendered in earnest, as moving as only the truth can be. I will listen again and again, whenever I’m headed home,” novelist and Kentucky native Barbara Kingsolver, who lives in southwestern Virginia, writes in the liner notes for Calling Me Home. “The particular genius of Kathy Mattea is to call up the touchstones of hope and heartbreak that we all carry in our pockets. Even if these mountains are not yours, the fact is everybody has a home stretch, where you feel a little torn up because no matter which way you’re headed, you are going towards home and also leaving it again.”
Mattea wanted to sing about the strong sense of place felt by so many people who call Appalachia home.
“I started with a couple of songs I had found after the Coal album was done. And so that was my seed,” Mattea says. “… And I wanted to celebrate that kind of relationship people have with the land there, and highlight the beauty of it and the subtlety of what is lost when … progress gets to be more important. And just sort of subtly bring up the question of how do we hold what’s being lost and what’s being gained.”
Two-thirds of the songs are by four women: Kentucky-born Jean Ritchie, often called “The Mother of Folk,” plus Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard, and Laurie Lewis.
“The first two songs that I started the album with were Jean songs — ‘Now is the Cool of the Day’ and ‘Black Waters.’ That was sort of the anchor for the record,” she says. “My sense is that as I’m looking for a record, as I start to focus on the next album, I start to sort of walk through my life with a sieve, kind of looking for songs, and looking for themes, and listening for what resonates. Having these two really strong songs that were both about the environment kind of gave me a point of view.”
Other songs, such as Si Kahn’s “Gone, Gonna Rise Again” and Gerrard’s “Agate Hill,” came out of encounters with songwriters.
Kahn, a Pennsylvania native, spent the first fifteen years of his life in State College.
“Part of what I was trying to do was to sing about Appalachian culture in Kentucky, in Virginia, in Tennessee, in Pennsylvania, in West Virginia,” she says. “And so I kind of checked (Pennsylvania) off my list when I found that song.”
Mattea told Kahn she wanted her album to have an environmentalist point of view.
“Instead of saying, ‘Don’t destroy this,’ I want to celebrate what we want to save. I want to do it from the light, not from the darkness,” she says. “He said, ‘You know, I got this old song.’ And we talked about how both of our grandparents were buried on top of a hill. And that’s what you do in Appalachia. You bury them up high because of the floods that come. We just started reminiscing about our common memories. When I sing that song, I think I’m aware of my grandparents’ graves on top of the hill. But … I have a little picture in my head of a place in Pennsylvania where I am when I sing that song.”
Dickens, a West Virginian who died in 2011, and Gerrard performed as a duo for many years.
“I was playing at Folk Alliance, and I had to do some of Hazel’s songs with Hazel sitting in the fourth row,” Mattea remembers. “… That’ll grow you right up. It was a big-girl moment. I stepped into that moment, and she was so gracious about it. And then at the end of the night she came up and was talking to me about it, and she said, ‘Hey, I want to introduce you to my friend Alice Gerrard.’ And there I was with Hazel and Alice — and no camera. But it was just this astounding moment. Alice handed me a CD that night. … I had no idea she could write like that.”
Even though she grew up in small-town Cross Lanes, Mattea says traditional music didn’t resonate with her when she was young.
“That music was going like a screensaver in the background,” she says. “I messed around with bluegrass with a friend’s family band. I’d sit in and play when I was young. But there was nobody to teach me the old songs. So they really didn’t live for me.”
Coal producer Marty Stuart helped her realize the old-time music was inside her all along.
“I said, ‘You know, Marty, some of these songs they’re almost just too easy to sing.’ And he said, ‘That’s because it’s in your blood, pal.’ ”
Two decades ago she heard another whisper that the folk songs were in her blood.
“When Ken Burns made The Civil War series for PBS, he followed it up the next year with just a one-night special on the music of the Civil War. I got to sing several songs in that,” she recalls. “There was an old song called ‘The Vacant Chair’ that they gave me that was the most popular song on both sides in the Civil War. When I came on TV singing that song, my mother and her sisters went crazy calling each other on the phone because my great grandmother used to sing that song. And they all remembered.”
A three-member road band featuring guitarist Bill Cooley, Mattea’s sideman for more than twenty years, performs with the singer-guitarist at Penn State.
While her concert showcases songs from Calling Me Home, it also includes music from Coal and a selection of her radio hits, such as “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” “Goin’ Gone,” and the Grammy-winning “Where’ve You Been?”
“We do a lot of old favorites. We take requests. We’ll pull out a song that has been long forgotten, and work up an arrangement of it, and do it as a surprise for people,” she says. “And that’s how you keep your show a living thing.”
Artistic Viewpoints is not offered before the concert. But a discussion among Mattea and audience members follows the performance.