To record an album under normal circumstances represents challenge enough. While she tried to assemble The Innocent Years, Kathy Mattea met “crisis after crisis after crisis.”
To be released Tuesday (May 16) on Mercury, the new collection is Mattea’s 11th studio album, her first in three years and the follow-up to the critically acclaimed Love Travels. She co-produced the album with Ben Wisch and Keith Stegall, but Mattea had more than the usual share of distractions to contend with.
“My mom got real sick; we couldn’t find out what was wrong,” she recalls during a recent interview at her manager’s office near downtown Nashville. “I backed off my career, went home and helped them navigate through all the medical system. Got her diagnosed.
“The record label [Mercury] sold [to Universal],” she continues, barely pausing for breath. “Had to grind to a screeching halt again. Finally, that settled, and just as I was starting to gear back up, my father gets diagnosed with terminal cancer. To make a long story short, everybody’s OK. My father’s in complete remission, playing golf and back to his old self.
“The journey of that was very intense. And, in the meantime, I turned 40. The combination of all of those things, there was a real sense that, ’Oh, OK. This is that big corner I’m turning in my life, where the record label isn’t the same, the industry isn’t the same. You come to terms with your own mortality and your parents’ mortality.'”
As any artist will tell you, tough times can make for great inspiration.
Acknowledged as a great singer — she was the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year in 1989 and 1990 and the Academy of Country Music’s Female Vocalist of the Year in 1989 — Mattea has written songs infrequently. On the new album, she helped write the title track, which she calls “the centerpiece of the record,” and “Callin’ My Name,” about a precious, whispered call toward home.
“I came to town to write, and I found that I got more of a response to my singing,” Mattea explains when asked about her long hiatus from writing. “By the time I got back to it I had really grown as a singer. I was this famous singer, but I’m still a baby songwriter.”
For both “The Innocent Years” and “Callin’ My Name,” Mattea collaborated with her husband, songwriter Jon Vezner, and Sally Barris. Barris, especially, insisted that Mattea get involved in writing “The Innocent Years” after hearing her talk about the emotions inspired by what Vezner and Barris had come up with as the “skeleton of the song.”
“Sally looked at me and said, ’You have to write this with us. We will not get to this place without your participation,'” Mattea recalls. “She said, ’We need you.’ When she put it that way, I thought, ’I need to get over this and just do it.'”
“Callin’ My Name,” on the other hand, started with an idea Mattea had shelved years ago. “I had a chord progression, an idea and a melody that I’d had for years and never fleshed out,” she recalls. The idea took on another meaning when Mattea watched her parents’ painful struggle with their health.
“I would think, just remember, you can pick up the phone, call home and hear your mother’s voice. You can go sit in a room with your father, even if he doesn’t say anything. I had people say to me, ’Enjoy this time because a day will come when you’d give anything to hear your mother say your name.’ It made me think about that primal imprint it makes on us.
“What is it when you’re a kid, you’re playing ball and everybody’s yelling and screaming and it’s after dinner and your mom calls you home and you can hear that teeny, tiny voice coming over the hill and tune into it like radar?
“Or you’re at some party and your spouse is telling a story across the room and everyone is talking and it’s really loud. He’s telling some story about him and you, and he says your name and you think he’s calling you and you look up, out of a conversation. It’s like a gut-level, knee-jerk reaction. I wanted to articulate that in a song.”
“Callin’ My Name” advances a larger theme which resonates throughout the carefully sequenced work. “Trouble With Angels,” the upbeat first single and video (shot in and around Rome), follows “The Innocent Years” and gives way to the gospel-sounding “Why Can’t We” (with backing vocals by a quintet that includes relatives of Fairfield Four member Walter Settles). “Prove That By Me,” the CD’s fourth track, is a pop-leaning, mid-tempo number about unwavering love.
“It’s an album about the search for the essence of what is real in life,” says Mattea of The Innocent Years. “That’s about as concise as I can get.”
Life, lately, has provided Mattea with her share of challenges. Occasionally, during the three years between albums, she felt anxious about her career, but now she has the CD out, she has performance dates scheduled through the end of the year and her parents are doing well.
“There were times when I would wake up in the middle of the night with a wave of panic, ’Oh my God, I’m never going to make a record again,'” she recalls. “But the chance to be there, at the moment in your life when your parents need you the most, doesn’t come on a schedule.”