NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Kathy Mattea’s Got the Goods

Still Following Former Producer's Advice to "Look for Great Songs Every Time"

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

If you ever get tired of dumb songs and songs about “kiss my country ass” and songs about being proud of being a know-nothing dumbass or badass or hick — or just plain mediocre assembly-line radio songs — rest assured that there are still real songs being written and recorded. You just don’t hear them on the radio very often. There are still plenty of good song people around. Kathy Mattea is one of them.

Since 1984’s self-titled album debut, Mattea has maintained a consistently high level of song quality and credibility. Her new CD, Right Out of Nowhere, continues that tradition.

She’s a member of a growing club, one made up of quality major country artists who are no longer signed to a major Nashville country record label. Like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, George Jones and many others, she parted ways — for whatever reasons — with her longtime label, Mercury, in 2000. These artists’ work no longer appealed to country radio programmers and, in most cases, the artists are better off doing what they’re doing now.

In Mattea’s case, her track record of song selection (and occasional songwriting) is very solid, and it continues on the new album. Songs she’s picked over the years include “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” “Where’ve You Been,” “Goin’ Gone,” “Lonesome Standard Time,” “Walking Away a Winner” and “Love at the Five and Dime.”

I ran into her this week, and we talked a bit about that sort of thing. “The reason I have a strong body of work,” Mattea told me, “is because I worked with [producer] Allen Reynolds for eight years. He insisted I look for great songs every time, to keep the standards high all the time.”

She’s a true songwriter’s friend, along with such other deeply song-conscious artists as Alan Jackson, George Strait and Trisha Yearwood. On her new CD, Mattea picked songs by such solid songwriters as Harley Allen, Darrell Scott, Angela Kaset. Tia Sillers and Mark D. Sanders. And John Fogerty, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

In addition to savvy song-picking, Mattea is also very adept at selecting and arranging cover songs. For many years, she has done a torchy, live version of Hank Williams’ gospel song “House of Gold” and, in fact, did a very impressive version of it at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s opening in 2001. That was a very fitting homecoming for her, since Mattea worked as a Hall of Fame tour guide early in her career. “I was on the CMF board then and was the only former Hall of Fame tour guide ever to be on the board. And I went in there with an attitude. I’d say, ’The steel guitar exhibit has been broken for two years. Get it fixed!'”

On the new album, which she produced, she covers the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner.”

“It takes a lot of chutzpah to cover the Stones,” Mattea said. “But at the time, we as a country were about to go to war. And the words of that song seemed so relevant to what was going on that we decided to try it in concert. Audiences really responded to that song, and they still do. They are really listening to the words. And doing it acoustically worked. I would never dare do a Stones song with drums and electric guitars.”

The same applied, she said, for her syncopated arrangement of CCR’s “Down on the Corner.” Putting a mandolin on both songs worked wonders, but just treating them as acoustic songs with more of a focus on the words altered the songs’ perceptions. She concludes the CD with a new arrangement of the old gospel song, “Wade in the Water,” which she added “because I like to include a gospel song when I can.”

As for the rest of Right Out of Nowhere, it’s a very satisfying assemblage of good, mature songs about credible people and their very real concerns. Things that thoughtful songwriters think about.