In a converted warehouse in Nashville, a large rectangular room fills with tight vocal harmonies. At the back of the room, two-time Grammy winner Kathy Mattea is rehearsing with her band. But instead of facing out to the imaginary audience, she sings to her fellow musicians. “We’re all hashing out our parts all the time and making suggestions,” Mattea tells CMT News. “It’s very much a group effort, and that’s part of the fun of it.”
Taking a break, the willowy brunette settles into one of the room’s two couches. Dressed in jeans and a powder blue top, Mattea appears excited about her holiday shows.
“My first Christmas tour I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work. I don’t know if I want to be gone during the holiday season,’” she says shaking her head. “What I found was the music lifted us all up. I mean the whole band was like, ‘This is great!’ And it was worth being gone because of the music that we got to immerse ourselves in.”
Mattea’s current Christmas show is a solid two-hour performance, which begins with an acoustic set of her biggest country hits and finishes with holiday music from both her Christmas CDs. “I think it’s a neat contrast, and I think it’s going to be really special,” she says.
In 1993, Mattea recorded her first Christmas album Good News, which went on to win a Grammy. In the decade since, Mattea has steadily collected the songs and arrangements that make up her new CD Joy for Christmas Day. It includes four classic yuletide tunes, but her innovative arrangements bring them new life. “Angels We Have Heard on High” rejoices with the help of bongo drums. And “O Come All Ye Faithful” is a musical contradiction. It begins reverently in Latin (Adeste Fideles) and as the lyrics change to English, a rocking organ leads the vocalist to full gospel mode.
The rest of the disc contains new songs with a raw sound and a lot of attitude — something not associated with your usual Christmas albums.
“I didn’t want to just rehash the usual stuff, put a steel guitar on it and have it be all the Christmas songs with Kathy Mattea’s voice on them. I really wanted to see what I could do creatively with it, and those were the songs I was drawn to, ” Mattea explains.
“Baby King” (written by Marc Cohn) is a gospel number with a swagger. “You might dance, daddy, you might sing/But you’ve never seen nothing like a baby king.” And “There’s Still My Joy” is a gentle reminder of hope.
While each cut is a unique musical journey, the disc is united by its common destination; a baby in a manger. And Mattea admits that was her plan all along.
“The thing that keeps me coming back is being able to sing about something that has a deeper meaning,” she says. “It really is much more about the Nativity than it is about the holiday season. And we’ve just gotten really far away from that.”
But there is a hidden track on the album that references Santa Claus. When Mattea was recording Good News, her father John suggested she include a song that had been part of every Mattea family Christmas.
“He would get all the kids together and sing this song to us that his uncle had sung to him as a kid. And when he found out I was going to make a Christmas record he was like, ‘Oh honey, you should do that song; that little song that I used to do,’” Mattea says smiling. Not sure if she would remember the words, Mattea had her father record the song in her home studio, but it was never included on the Good News album.
This past May her father passed away. While working on Joy for Christmas Day, Mattea’s husband and producer Jon Vezner reminded her of the recorded track.
“It’s like this little chunk of him that’s still with us,” she says. In a quiet voice, she adds, “He had a beautiful voice and sang all the time.”
No one knows much about the song. Not even its name.
“We don’t know where it came from. The only thing we know is he was 80 some years old when he sang it, so it’s probably public domain.”