Kathy Mattea has done it again.
When the two-time GRAMMY Award winner released Coal in 2008, many critics thought it’s powerful messages about Appalachia would be impossible to replicate. That’s understandable when you consider the Charleston, W. Va. native wrote the 11 songs on Coal as a way to spotlight the Montcoal, W. Va. mining disaster that killed 29 people. But what Mattea did on the album even beat that lofty goal; she turned the songs into a story of those that lived in the area for decades, continually triumphing over oppression.
Although Mattea has had more than 30 singles on the Billboard Hot Country Singles and Tracks chart including “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” and ”Goin’ Gone,” she has no qualms about turning back to her folk, bluegrass roots for her latest album though it moves her away from the country music spotlight. Mattea recently took time to talk about her new album, her time in mainstream country, and how a sense of place plays into her music.
OS: Coal is an incredible album because it really speaks to the heart of those who are natives of Appalachia. When you recorded that, did you plan record a second record focused on Appalachia.
KM: I thought Coal would just be a diversion, a novelty kind of thing. Then I discovered this genre of music around me all the time. My musical upbringing was kind of random. There was no one in this world that could teach me this stuff. I had a blind spot on it but when I turned to look at it, it made complete sense. It felt very natural.
OS: What were your thoughts when you began this album?
KM: Thematically Coal was boxed in by a very specific point of view. I wanted to see what I could do if I opened it up a little bit. I couldn’t figure out the next project until I lived it all the way through til the end of the arc. Then I thought “What is next?” It took me a while to realize that this would be the project.
OS: It has to be interesting to record albums such as this after living in the commercial music industry where everything was prescribed.
KM: That is a point of view that a lot of people have and I understand a lot of artists go through that. I realized that many people have a point, but that is not my story. When I was on Mercury, they never rejected an album, never rejected a demo. They trusted me and I have to say that I had a very sweet experience in commercial music. I think it made this part of my career more natural. This just doesn’t feel like the next project. It feels like I’m just following the open doors.
OS: I was talking to Marty Stuart about his work as the producer on Coal. Was it difficult to make this new album without him?
KM: What happened for me, I realized at the same time that I started to have some other ideas that Marty wouldn’t have time to work on it. Working with him had been good for me. I can glom right on. If you teach me to fly, I will follow you forever. So I called Gary Paczosa and told him I had a bunch of songs that I felt needed to be a record and I needed an hour of his time. We ended up meeting a few times and then when we were talking he said “I would love to co-produce it.” I just thought that was perfect.
OS: How did you decide what songs to put on this album? What was that process like?
KM: I went into it with a few songs from Coal. They were like a tattoo, like fly paper, tugging at my sleeves.
OS: Which songs were those?
KM: “Now is the Cool of the Day” and “Black Waters.” Both were with me. They weren’t on Coal and they wouldn’t leave me alone. They both take me straight back to Appalachia because Jean Richie’s roots are there and she wrote those songs. I didn’t realize until after I left that area how very attached the people of Appalachia are to it. When I was a kid, we had a cabin and I knew everything about the place. Everyone did. I knew where all the mushrooms grew and everyone knew how to find them and harvest them without getting anything poison. We knew everything about the area, where the bear’s den was, just everything. I just wanted to try to get something of that essence into the music. It’s like the reverence you have for your best friend. Maybe it’s not formal, but it’s an important part of your life. In Appalachia, everyone has a garden, everyone cans [fruits]. I was looking for songs that made me feel a certain way. I am always looking for a gut reaction when I sing. It’s a whole different way of finding a song. Rather than plugging into the Nashville system, it was more like being an archivist.
OS: How did you work out the arrangements for these songs? It had to be difficult in a way, because you have so much respect for some of these classic songs.
KM: Bill Cooley worked with me. He has played guitar with me for 22 years and thinks about music as an ensemble player. He thinks bigger than just his part. So it started a few years ago. I started pulling out the songs with just him and me working through them. I told him “I had this idea. Can you flesh it out or tell me which ones don’t work?” We’d go through songs and and talk about what was working and not. We did this for six to eight months on this album.
OS: Does one song come to mind that started out one way and changed as you went through the process?
KM: “The Wood Thrush’s Song” was a cappella with a choir . I kept hearing it with this groove and kept coming at it with that groove. I just kept working with it and now it lives in a completely different way. I just thought maybe we can breathe new life into it and bring it to new people.
Find out more about Kathy Mattea and her new album on her official website.
Kathy Mattea gives an acoustic preview of her new album Calling Me Home on this new video: