Kathy Mattea’s home state of West Virginia inspired her compelling new album, Calling Me Home. Even though she’s no longer striving for country radio success, she considers her current music-making approach to be similar to her hit-making heyday in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Really, the process that I am doing right now is really no different than the process I ever did. I have come to understand in my commercial years it’s just really lucky to be on a record label that let me be me,” says Mattea, who charted 16 Top 10 country hits in her award-winning career.
Speaking about the new album, released on independent label Sugar Hill Records, Mattea notes, “It’s like finding in the back of your closet your favorite old pair of jeans and finding that they still fit. It doesn’t feel like a departure. It feels like a continuation and a return home all at the same time.”
In this interview with CMT Insider producer Terry Bumgarner, Mattea reminisces about choosing the right song, creating a career-spanning set list and arriving during the golden years in Nashville.
CMT: Do you get a different kind of satisfaction putting out music and reaching listeners in this way than you did in ’89 or ’90 on a larger scale?
Mattea: You know, I understand the question, and the answer is no. I was really fortunate because I got to work with [producer] Allen Reynolds for the bulk of my career, and he’s a guy who’s like, “There is no magic formula, pal.” It’s a great song, sung honestly and well-framed. He pointed my compass so that is always where I want to live. I want to live in a great song, and I want to live in a song that moves me. That was true for “18 Wheels and a Dozen Roses” and true for “Where’ve You Been?” and it’s true for this music, too. One of the things that I realized along the way — and felt so lucky when it really hit me — the songs that I built my career on have lived really well over time. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I wouldn’t have done that.
Let’s go back to your first No. 1, “Goin’ Gone” in 1988. What did that success feel like?
It was thrilling! Back then, the system was in place. You hoped to get a record deal. If you got lucky enough to get a record deal, you start thinking, “I better have a hit so they don’t drop me.” When you have a hit: “I better have another hit so they don’t drop me.” Then you think, “Will I be the girl who came and almost made it, or will I make a mark?” At the end of the day, it seems to me that we all want meaning and connection some way — fulfillment somehow.
Back then, I used to say, “Oh, I don’t do it for the awards,” but I’ve realized that there is something to that because there is a moment in time, where that they can never take away from you, when all your peers went “Good job!” … I think that it’s a dream come true. For me, the challenge is to not try to hang onto it. I have to stay with what’s coming up for me at any given moment as a person and a musician. If I do that, I’m always OK.
You’ve always moved forward, as you’re doing now. I’m guessing it would be easy to just play your greatest hits kind of like a traveling jukebox.”
It isn’t for me. I learned pretty quickly that I would hate this life that I’ve been blessed with, and it felt like stomping on a jewel. I couldn’t do that, and I knew that pretty early on.
Now you have so many titles to choose from. How do you choose a set list?
You think there are people who have come tonight, and it might be their only chance to hear those songs done by the girl who sang them on the radio. I try to honor that and honor what’s new. And, really, if I do it well, I take the audience on the journey I went on from these songs to these songs — why I’m connected to them and why they speak to me and give them some back story. I’m not just singing at people. I’m connecting with them. Hopefully, if I’m connected with the songs, they’ll connect with the songs. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.
For the artists who are scrambling so hard now, do you ever want to reach out and tell them anything? Or to say, “Enjoy it”?
I did a gig with Taylor Swift early on, and she opened for me. I think she was still in high school, and I said, “Are you having any kind of life?” And she said, “Yeah, and it’s a darn good one, too!” And I thought, “This one is different, and she wears it so well.”
Maybe everybody feels this way — I imagine Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn feeling this way — but it feels like the years that I came up were sort of a golden era. Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle were getting played on country radio. Along with Conway Twitty and me, it was just wide open. Rich! And you could stand on one corner of Music Row and see all six major labels, most of which were in old houses. There was a block party every year, a hot dog party with Elvis impersonators. It was crazy. Every Christmas, the singers union would organize caroling up and down Music Row to all of the offices of all the publishers and writers and record labels. It was a sweet time and a small community. And I feel like I got in on the tail end of that. I’m really happy to have had the ride I had.