"I want to be able to be alive musically," says Kathy Mattea, "I want to have a growing edge that I can identify and feel." The two-time Grammy winner and Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year has followed a path of discovery and re-thinking throughout a career spanning 11 albums of intensely felt music. Now Kathy Mattea is ready to embark on an exciting new phase of her musical journey.
Signing with Mercury Records in 1983, Kathy Mattea released her self-titled debut the following year. Though it generated several Top 40 singles, it was not until her third album, Walk The Way The Wind Blows (1986) that established her as an up and coming 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 again in order to survive" - and open up it did. Mattea scored four Top 10 hits from the album as the rootsy sound of songs like the album's title track (penned by bluegrasser and fellow West Virginia native Tim O'Brien) brought a critically acclaimed breath of fresh air to country music alongside singles from fellow pioneers like Nanci Griffith (who wrote Mattea's first Top 10, "Love At The Five And Dime"), Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett. Kathy had earned critical acclaim and commercial success among country music's left-of-center innovators.
In late 1987 she released her first #1 single, "Goin' Gone," and the next year saw her issue "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, while keeping a steady presence at the top of the country charts with nine Top 10 singles, including a 1990 duet with O'Brien, "The Battle Hymn Of Love," as well as the tender "Where've You Been," co-written by her husband, Jon Vezner, which earned her 1990s Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. The same year also saw her first gold album, Willow In The Wind.
Throughout the '90s, Kathy's successes continued, charting still more singles, including 1994s top five single "Walking Away A Winner," and releasing three more gold albums, 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.
In 2000, her album The Innocent Years found her "in her creative prime," as critic Jay Orr put it for country.com. "It was very emotional. My Dad was struggling against cancer, and I had started writing again; I decided to try to share some of the human experience of growing through adulthood in the songs. When it was finished I just felt really good about it. It fed my soul to make that record." Throughout her career, Kathy has always listened to her musical conscience. "Allen Reynolds, my first producer (and musical guru), taught me that if I can learn to listen to my heart and make music from there, everything else will take care of itself."
During the early 90s, as country music exploded behind the phenomenon of Garth Books, Kathy began to push her own musical boundaries. "I became musically restless. Country music, as a format, seemed to be narrowing down again, at the time I was exposed to all this cool Celtic and world music."
"I began to feel like the next generation was coming up, and I could either choose to play in that arena, or go and see what else might be out there for me. I began to dream of making music without all these rules. I wanted to do more than just think out of the box--I wanted to see what I could do if there was no box!! I wanted to experiment with some of the sounds I had been exposed to during my trips to Scotland. Adding unexpected elements, like traditional Celtic instruments or more ethnic drumming to our shows has allowed us more diversity. I've always enjoyed making that kind of cultural and musical soup."
In making the move, Kathy signed to Narada Records. Calling it "a really unique fit," Mattea said, "my door into country music was always folk and acoustic-based. Narada is well-respected, and there's a lovely synergy there between what I have been yearning to do, and their philosophy as a company."
"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. Your 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 your future."
Whatever the music, whatever the style, the feeling behind it is what Kathy Mattea treasures most. "At the end of the day music has to move me on a gut level. I think it's just about making some kind of connection with people. And I try to do that by staying connected with it myself. I guess by giving people a window on your insights into your own life, sometimes, if you're lucky, you can give them an insight into their own. If I can do that with my music, then I can't ask for much more."