Country Singer Kathy Mattea At Mansfield's Renaissance Theatre On Saturday

This appeared in the Mansfield News Journal - May 6, 2008

Loretta Lynn may be known as the coal miner's daughter, but Kathy Mattea, a member of another generation of country singers, is a coal miner's granddaughter.

The Grammy and Country Music Association award winner will appear Saturday at the Renaissance Theatre as the fourth event of the Renaissance Family Series.

Mattea, known for hits including "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses" and "Where've You Been," is touring in support of her new album, Coal.

She said she wanted to pay tribute to "my place and my people."

Raised near Charleston, West Virginia, Mattea has a thick mining heritage: both parents grew up in coal camps, both grandfathers were miners and her mother worked for the local union. Mattea's father was saved from working in the mines by an uncle who paid his way through college.

"It's a coming together of a lot of different threads in my life," Mattea said of the album.

Mattea said she has pondered Coal since she was 19 and first heard "Dark as a Dungeon," which is on the album. From there she quietly cataloged mining and mountain songs that she wanted to record at some point. It was after the Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 West Virginia miners in 2006 that she thought, "Now is the time to do these songs."

On tour in support of Coal through the end of the year and into 2009, Mattea spoke to the News Journal by phone. "Oh my gosh," she said of the response to the new album. "Best reviews of my career. Really something."

Mattea said she thought it was something she needed to do to "just get it out of my system" but has found that "People are loving it."

Fellow West Virginia native Homer Hickam, author of "Rocket Boys" and "October Sky," worked in the mines to help pay his way through college. In the liner notes, he wrote that the album "is a full-throated beauty, both a stirring anthem and a poignant hymn to these quiet, unassuming heroes. I am listening to it even now with a tear in my eye and a smile in my heart."

Hickam initiated contact with Mattea by sending her an e-mail when he heard of the project. Mattea called Hickam "my new best friend" and reported they've been talking and making appearances together ever since.

"It's like having someone who's in your family," she said.

Most of her own family, including her brothers, still live in the area where she grew up. Her brother, Mike, dispatches coal barges and her brother, Joe, also has worked peripherally in the coal business. She said they don't really talk about the environmental and social issues involved in mining.

"Coal, like water, is going to be a central topic of discussion in the next five to six years," Mattea predicted. "Energy issues and environmental issues are going to be linked more and more. We are all linked back to coal."

The album is about that link, that love/hate relationship with mining that has provided both life and death to so many. Hickam, whose own father died of black lung, praises her a cappella rendition of the mournful "Black Lung" for letting "her voice alone bring forth the fear, frustration and pain of this awful disease.

"That song took me six months to learn to sing," Mattea said. "I still wasn't sure I was going to be able to pull it off."

Finally, guitarist Bill Cooley stopped one day after a verse and said "You had me."

Like her hit "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses," the Hazel Dickens classic tells a story. Booted from the company health plan, Dickens' brother was ravaged by the disease.

"He was left with nothing. It was a horrible way to die," Mattea said.

That song and other material on the album goes much deeper than some of the more commercial songs of her career.

"They had all the power," she said of the mining company's affect on the people and the land.

Quoting Bobby Kennedy Jr. that "Nature is the infrastructure of our economy," Mattea's concerns about social justice and the environment sound more tree-hugging liberal than the conservative stance that many equate with country music. She said that perception has turned around as "Country music was ... music of working people."

Marty Stuart, who has deep country roots of his own, produced the album.

"When he said yes to producing the album, it was such a gift," Mattea recalled.

Stuart played a guitar on Coal that was given to him by Johnny Cash and had also been played by Mother Maybelle Carter.

"There's some mojo on this," she said.

It is a return engagement in Mansfield for Mattea, who called the Renaissance "a beautiful place." She said she's got a "rocking band" that will be performing songs from the new CD along with reworked versions of her older tunes.

After 20 years in the business, Mattea said the Internet has opened up all kinds of new avenues, such as the music blogger who gets hundreds of thousands of hits a day who has praised her work.

"These kinds of things are new in my world," she said. "I'm just so blessed."

By Lisa Miller

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