Mattea Heads Back Home To Premiere New CD, Coal

This appeared in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch - March 15, 2008

For the previous two nights, Kathy Mattea had been up with the band, holed up at the concrete-block bluegrass bar and grill, The Station Inn in Nashville, pouring out her soul and then some into songs from her new CD, Coal.

This was the morning after.

Jacked up on a near Cumberland River’s worth of caffeine, Mattea was rightfully ripe and anxious to talk about, Coal and better yet to get her project that’s taken the better part of two years to make out on the street.

That happens April 1, and it can’t come out fast enough.

Like fellow West Virginian Homer Hickam, who wrote the liner notes for Coal, Mattea was so moved when the Sago mine disaster happened, she dropped what she was doing and could only think of home and coal and all that it means.

“This project started with the Sago mine disaster, which was two years ago,” Mattea said. “So from it’s very beginning to now it has been two years. I’m feeling like a pregnant woman who is way overdue.”

To celebrate the already-much-heralded project, Mattea will be kicking off her nationwide tour here in the hills near home.

She’s premiering the new and most poignant album of her already storied career, back home on Mountain Stage.

The Cross Lanes native, whose grandfathers were both coal miners, headlines Mountain Stage at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 30, for a special road show at the historic Paramount Arts Center in Ashland, Ky.

Also on the bill is long-time friend and Wheeling, West Virginia native Tim O’Brien, who sings and plays on the Mattea CD, as well as Abigail Washburn and her super-hero string band, The Sparrow Quartet featuring Bela Fleck, Casey Driessen and Ben Sollee, as well as critically acclaimed singer/songwriter Tift Merritt and Louisiana slide guitarist Sonny Landreth. Landreth’s new album (due April 20) features guest appearances by Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Vince Gill, Eric Johnson, Robben Ford, Dr. John and Jimmy Buffett.

For Mattea, who traipses back often to West Virginia to visit Mountain Stage, play other shows and see family, getting to premiere Coal here was the only way to do it.

“I love Mountain Stage — they are like family,” Mattea said by phone from Nashville. “Tim and Mollie (O’Brien) are the closest thing I have ever had to family harmony. They did sing on a cut on the record. Getting to do Mountain Stage with them and at the beginning of this process is a gift. It is like a family reunion.”

Mattea, who came back to Charleston in November to sing and appear on the first West Virginia Music Hall of Fame induction at the Cultural Center Theatre at the Capitol Complex, also came back earlier this winter to do the CD’s photo shoot.

Both times, she said she got great support from the Mountain Stage family including Mountain Stage’s long-time guitarist Michael Lipton, who is also the executive director of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.

“Along the way, Michael Lipton has been incredibly supportive with contacts and ideas for songs, and Larry has helped us, and Andy has been like an angel,” Mattea said.

“He really helped us with the location for the photo shoot, an entire outdoor photo shoot that we shot in Charleston in an unexpected high of 25 degrees with four inches of snow.”

Mattea said at times like these when everything was going wrong that it seemed a guiding hand was on the project.

“We’re in Charleston and I’m like, ‘Oh this is great, we’ve flown in a photographer and we’re all set and every one of our locations was outdoors,” Mattea said. “But so many serendipitous things happened. It just all worked out perfectly. It’s like watching Tetris pieces fall into place.”

Perhaps, that has been because Mattea, though she said she went into the project with some naiveté, was ready to spiritually shoulder the weight of tackling the subject of coal.

She has also stood on West Virginia’s once majestic mountains that have been razed by mountaintop removal. She also knows, and talks first-hand around the country about global warming that is caused in great part by the mass burning of coal.

“At a certain point in my journey as a musician and a person, I began to change the point of view of what I do and stated to ask the question how can I be of service,” Mattea said. “And really that is how I got here. One tiny step at a time and so I don’t really know yet what my whole role in this is, except that I don’t want to be a screaming person pointing fingers. I don’t want to make things worse instead of better, and I want to try and be respectful. I keep asking, what can I do to help understand and cause real change because I think we can take sides and bash all day long but does it help? It is very difficult because emotions run high in these situations.”

Always a well-respected interpreter of great songs, Mattea, the Grammy-winning singer of such classics as “18 Wheels and A Dozen Roses,” “Where’ve You Been” and many other hits, dug deep into the coal-fired cannon of bluegrass and folk songs for work-polished gems by such celebrated songwriters as Jean Ritchie, Si Kahn, Utah Phillips, Merle Travis, Darrell Scott, and, of course, West Virginia natives Billy Edd Wheeler and Hazel Dickens, both of whom were inducted into the first class of the West Virginia Hall of Fame.

To make sure she got it right vocally and musically, Mattea enlisted country legend Marty Stuart and someone who started playing hillbilly music professionally at age 13 when he joined Lester Flatt’s band.

“Marty lives, eats and breathes it,” Mattea said. “He’s has the historical perspective and has played with Johnny Cash and June Carter and so that was part of it. I was afraid when I started that my voice was too commercial sounding to do this music because a lot of this music is about sheer emotion and about people expressing life experiences but not about performing. I didn’t know if I could pull it off, and I knew that Marty would be honest with me.”

Her first album without drums, Coal features Byron House on upright bass, Bill Cooley (Mattea’s guitarist for the past 20 years), Stuart Duncan offers mandolin, banjo (which is featured on his own transitional track with “Sally in the Garden”) and fiddle.

In addition to those three main band members, she added Stuart, who plays guitar, mandolin, mandola and sings with Patty Loveless for background vocals on “Blue Diamond Mines.” Also supplying background vocals are Tim O’Brien (“my brother,” Mattea says) and his sister, Mollie O’Brien, who belt it out on “Green Rolling Hills.” John Catchings offers a haunting cello. Mattea band member and studio veteran Randy Leago contributes keyboard and accordion accents, and legendary steel player Fred Newell makes a guest appearance.

Mattea, who said she had thought about making an album like this since she was 19, said delivering these tunes such as “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” “Coal Tattoo,” “Red-Winged Black Bird,” “Lawrence Jones” and “Green Rolling Hills” is unlike any other thing she’s done.

“The last two nights at The Station Inn were such a different experience than doing my own stuff,” Mattea said. “It is like telling someone else’s story and honoring a way of life and a sense of place and a sense of my own family history. The other thing that is interesting is that the songs are so simple that if you over sing them you ruin them. So in some ways it is about stripping away ego and letting the song live. It is like some part of me steps out of the way. That’s been the big lesson for me. It’s been a real education on what it means to be a singer.”

Nowhere has it been tougher for Mattea than in tackling the work of a real West Virginia and nationally-recognized folk-song hero, Hazel Dickens, who has been like a musical Mother Jones whipping out social justice with a voice and guitar that ring out the truth from the heavens about the tribulations of working people.

Mattea does an a cappella vocal of “Black Lung.”

“It took me six months to sing ‘Black Lung,’” she said. “Even then I didn’t think I could pull it off.”

She did, and at the Hall of Fame ceremony in Charleston this past fall, when Alison Krauss read a heart-felt induction letter honoring Dickens, Mattea got to meet and hang out with Dickens.

She also sang the song with Dickens sitting in the third row.

“You talk about having to dig down deep to find your courage,” Mattea said. “But you know, Hazel came up afterwards and said she had never been out in the audience to hear that song so it was like another window into it. I am so glad that I got to make this album when she was still here and to get to spend time with her and to get to interview her and to sing ‘West Virginia, My Home’ with her.”

Already this record has taken Mattea into a much deeper experience than she could have ever imagined.

And as Coal spins, it is safe to say it will take more than a few folks on a deeper journey as well.

“My business manager came out and was like, ‘Who is this Hazel Dickens. I want to know more,’” Mattea said. “That is one of the undercurrents of this, is that, hopefully, I can be a bridge for people who might have never been exposed to these artists and writers and that I can be a bridge between the commercial and the more visceral folk tradition.”

By Dave Lavender

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