Kathy Mattea, Where’ve You Been?

For the first time in her career, Kathy Mattea made a conscious decision to duck out of the limelight for nine months, and she couldn’t sound happier about it.

“I haven’t had to jump back and forth across the country on planes between gigs,” Mattea tells CMT.com, with obvious relief. “My goal for this part of my life is to keep doing music, but not as the only thing I do. That’s been part of the point of taking this time off the road. I’ve had my hands in my own garden, spent time with friends and traveled just for fun. It’s been a great time.”

At 43, Mattea has returned from her extended vacation with an exquisite souvenir – a lovely 12-song bouquet called Roses, her first album for Narada Records, in stores Tuesday (July 30).

“I had it in my mind to make this record for a long time,” Mattea says. “I wanted to go back to my folk roots. I wanted it to be acoustic-based, but I wanted it to sound modern. And I wanted to mess with the Celtic influence that I’ve been flirting with in recent years.”

She will tour behind the album from October through April 2003, eschewing county fairs and sheds for performing arts centers and theaters. But for now Mattea is at home, about a mile from Nashville’s Music Row. The thunder rattles her windows as she fields questions about the new project.

After dropping out of college, the West Virginia native moved to Nashville in 1978 with her boyfriend, a bluegrass musician. She promptly landed a job as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame but quit within a year because she was losing her voice. Around that time, her boyfriend left town (eventually to become a dentist), but Mattea hung in there. She picked up some shifts at T.G.I. Friday’s, wearing a heart-shaped vinyl record in hair, and was paid to sing in the choir at St. George’s Episcopal Church, in the wealthy suburb of Belle Meade.

“When you are young and you have a fire in the belly, that’s what feeds you, and that’s what feeds your soul. I was like a sponge, I wanted to do music 24/7. I did music in all of my spare time in college. It was the thing I had all my passion for. It didn’t feel like work,” she recalls.

All the while, she played clubs around town and squeezed in studio time at every opportunity, singing demos until Mercury Records signed her in 1983. Though her first few albums struggled, she finally landed a solid hit in 1986 with “Love at the Five and Dime,” written by Nanci Griffith.

On the strength of hits like “Goin’ Gone,” “She Came From Fort Worth” and “Walk the Way the Wind Blows,” Mattea went on to capture CMA trophies for female vocalist of the year in 1989 and 1990. She capitalized on her good fortune with A Collection of Hits in 1990, which sold platinum. Along the way, she also amassed five gold albums and two Grammys, and spearheaded the 1994 AIDS benefit album Red, Hot + Country.

But if you were to hear Mattea on the radio today, it would probably be “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” the CMA Single of the Year in 1989.

“That song got me the first time I heard it,” she says, “When I hear that record on the radio, I can hear how young I was. There was something real honest about it. That was the real magic of working with [producer] Allen Reynolds. He was really all about heart — finding a song about heart, giving it an honest reading, and framing it in a way that didn’t stomp all over it. I always loved that about working with him.”

Finding the magic of music is a lesson Mattea has taken to her own heart. Roses does have its somber moments, such as her husband Jon Vezner’s heartbreaking contribution “Ashes in the Wind.” But on the whole, it’s a spiritually robust record in the vein of 1997’s Love Travels. That enthusiasm is especially evident on “Come Away With Me,” which Mattea wrote with Marcus Hummon, and on Kim Richey’s “I’m Alright.”

“Everything doesn’t have to be Pollyanna, but it’s hard for me to do a song that’s about a really black place,” Mattea says. “It’s hard for me to do a song where everything’s so awful, because to me, that’s what music does for me. It helps me to feel hope at times when I can’t feel hope, and it feeds me in that way. When I have to sing these songs over and over again, every night, I have to do songs that are going to live well for me.”

“Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” and the tender “Where’ve You Been” (co-written by Vezner and Don Henry) always find their way into the mix. Usually, so does “Come From the Heart” — with the ever-popular lyrics, “You got to sing like you don’t need the money/Love like you’ll never get hurt/You got to dance like nobody’s watchin’.” On a good night, she also revs up “455 Rocket,” which won a CMA Award in 1997 for video of the year.

Despite a sharp video, shot in Italy, for “The Trouble With Angels,” and Mattea’s welcome return as a songwriter, her 2000 album, The Innocent Years, sold poorly, and she parted with Mercury shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, Mattea stayed active, singing with symphonies, starring in a Nashville production of the play The Vagina Monologues and nurturing Roses.

“At this point, I feel lucky to keep doing what I love,” Mattea says. “I feel really lucky to have a home for the music I really want to make and the chance to make some records that I’ve been thinking about for many years. I feel really lucky to have such a loyal following. It’s great if you can make a living doing something you love — especially if you’re doing some kind of art and you can find people who want to buy it.”

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.