Kathy Mattea recorded a stellar version Kim Richey’s “I’m Alright” for her 2002 album, Roses, but the cheerful song of survival probably means more to her these days than ever.
Mattea’s latest project, Right Out of Nowhere, carries the emotion of someone who has weathered some of life’s most difficult questions while maintaining a sense of grace and ultimate optimism. Among the milestones she has dealt with are her father’s death from cancer in 2003 and a separation from — and a reconciliation with — her husband, songwriter, Jon Vezner. If those factors played a role in the album, Mattea also dealt with her mother’s death in August following a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s.
After achieving mainstream country success in the late ’80s with a string of No. 1 hits, including “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” “Come From the Heart,” “Burnin’ Old Memories” and “Goin’ Gone,” Mattea began to place an even greater emphasis on her roots in acoustic music. Now on Narada Records, an independent label that specializes in jazz and world music, she remains one of the most intriguing country artists to have emerged in the past two decades.
In a recent interview at CMT.com’s offices, Mattea talked about her career and Right Out of Nowhere.
CMT: You never have had the typical country career. Was that by design?
Mattea: I think it was fate. I think it was a combination of things. I came into country through acoustic and bluegrass music, and I wound up on a label that didn’t have a big staff. It was the smallest one of the majors at the time, and so they literally just didn’t have enough people to breathe down my neck. But they really believed in me, so I had free range to kind of find my way. And then there were just so many flukes. [Record producer] Allen Reynolds was going to quit the business, and we met and decided to make records together. … He really influenced me, not just musically but pointing my compass. … He knew a lot about what to base a long term career on.
It seems like there was a time in the late ’80s when you made a conscious decision to be an artist in the truest sense. Was that influenced by your initial trips to Ireland?
Mattea: I think when I made [1991's] Time Passes By, that record was really about some of the things I was getting exposed to over there and a different way in believing in songs. There were a lot of songs that I played in my living room for years, and people would say, “Play that song again.” And I was like, “If people like it in my living room, can I put them on a record?” So it was sort of about a different point of view. I think it was sort of a shift in what I saw as my purpose.
You’ve never really strived to have a superstar career, but you’re in the enviable position of making records and touring as you see fit.
Mattea: Well, I’m lucky because I’m not married to a lifestyle. I kind of let my lifestyle be dictated by what’s coming in. … At the end of the day, what you have is this moment that you’re doing what you do. And if you compromise that, it’s sort of a definition to me of selling your soul. It’s like, “Great. I’ve got this big hit, but I can’t stand to sing it every night.”
You do a cover of “Gimme Shelter” on the new album. Are you a big Rolling Stones fan?
Mattea: I think they’re amazing, but I’m not one of those people with an encyclopedic knowledge of them.
“Gimme Shelter” isn’t their most famous song, but it sort of sticks in the back of your mind.
Mattea: I live on a bus with people who are walking encyclopedias of music. Part of the fun of it is just rolling along and getting music history lessons. Bill Cooley has played guitar with me for 15 years and is responsible for many of the arrangements on this record and a lot of the inspiration. “Gimme Shelter” was his idea. The war [in Iraq] was breaking out when we first did that song live, and it just brought the house down. It became the seed for this record. The working title for this record was called Folk and Roll because there’s no drums on the first four or five cuts. We wanted to try to get the energy of it but kind of keep it on the porch.
“Give It Away,” one of the songs you co-wrote for the new album, is about first meeting another artist in a backstage. The lyrics are so rich and vivid, I wondered if this really happened.
Mattea: Yeah, it did. It was Keb’ Mo’. I went to see his show and wound up kind of bumming around in the afternoon. I needed to come and talk to him about something. There was someone a mutual acquaintance of ours who thought we might be a good combination as far as him producing. So here he was, and so there was this opportunity where suddenly I’m coming down to hang out with this guy I’ve never met before. There’s kind of a whole culture backstage. When you walk into it, you kind of tiptoe.
It was [written about] a conversation I had with him. … As many times happens with songs, you find yourself processing the same bit of information with lots and lots of people. It became kind of the recurring theme. … I really think that’s why we’re made imperfect as human beings is that we need each other. We really need each other, and when we fall short, we get in enough pain that we reach out to each other. And if you have been in that place where you have lost something that’s very precious and someone comes in and with no strings, is kind to you and helps you, then you know there’s something that opens up about your faith in the world that you can’t find any other way. … That song is how you pay that person back. You know, you pay if forward. And then you do it for somebody else, and they say, “How can I repay you?” and you say, “You do it for someone else.’”
The Darrell Scott song, “Love’s Not Through With Me Yet,” offers a fairly heavy concept in the lyric that says, “Can you love without needing?”
Mattea: There are a lot of songs on this record about unconditional love. What has happened for me in the last five years is that so many of the fundamental relationships in my life got really kind of rebuilt from the ground up. It’s just the whole nature of processing everything. There was just so much that fell away, I realized I didn’t know the first thing about love really. … I didn’t know how to love someone without having my own personal agenda in there.
But you also learn through loss.
Mattea: I believe that there is no part of us that is so broken, it can’t be healed. I just don’t, but there’s hard work involved. You can’t get fixated on the regret, and if you get fixated on the regret, then you’ll miss the gift. You’ll miss it because you’ll just be myopic, and you’ll be looking for it to look a certain way. A lot of times, the way it comes back around — or the way it gets healed — is not the way we expect it.
View Kathy Mattea’s exclusive performance on CMT.com’s Studio 330 Sessions.