On March 1, 2008, the oft-laurelled songwriter Bob McDill spoke to a packed house at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater.
Although dozens of his hit songs were still vigorous, McDill had retired from his lyrical labors a few years earlier. But he was in a reflective mood that day.
Asked why he stopped doing something he was so damn good at, he said he began losing interest in the business when — in the late 1990s — radio quit playing such stellar conveyors of his music as Don Williams, Dan Seals and Kathy Mattea.
McDill is still retired, and Mattea is still a rara avis on the radio outside the “classic country” format. But the full-throated voice and smooth delivery that earned her the Country Music Association’s female vocalist of the year awards in 1989 and ’90 remain strong and stirring on this (June 21), her 60th birthday.
Mattea, who charted only marginally at the outset of her recording career, came of age artistically during the same period that also yielded such other forceful women singers as Patty Loveless, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis, all of whom, except Morgan, also won the CMA top female honor.
Born in West Virginia, Mattea dropped out of college and followed her bluegrass-playing boyfriend to Nashville, where she supported herself with various jobs, the most inspirational of which was serving as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame, then providentially located on Music Row.
Uncommonly well-spoken and engaging, Mattea exuded a sophistication that was especially welcome as country music sought more urbane audiences via The Nashville Network and through other major media that were growing more open to featuring country stars.
That sophistication extended to her choice of songs. When she sang of love, she did not flirt, leer or wink. Generally speaking, her songs were of love transcendent — of bonds that endured, whether in the tumultuous but tenacious connection between Rita and Eddie in “Love at the Five and Dime,” the comfortable companionship of the impending retired couple in “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” or in the fragile grasp of the Alzheimer’s patient in “Where’ve You Been.”
The all-for-love theme is there, too, in “She Came from Fort Worth” and “Going Gone” and “The Battle Hymn of Love.” Mattea showed (and still shows) an affinity for thought-provoking songs, like the frolicsome “Come from the Heart” and the stone-sober “Standing Knee Deep in a River (Dying of Thirst), the latter of which Mc Dill co-wrote.
While achieving only Top 10 status, “Where’ve You Been” won Grammys for best country song and best country female vocal.
In 1992, Mattea caused a minor stir at the CMA Awards show. At the time, pop music stars were wearing red ribbons at awards ceremonies to draw attention to the raging AIDS epidemic. The conservative CMA decided its performers rather should wear green ribbons, supposedly to heighten environmental awareness. Instead, Mattea donned three red ribbons that night, one for each of her friends who had died from AIDS.
She would continue her AIDS-research support with various projects in the years ahead, most notably in the 1994 album, Red Hot + Country. Mattea sang of the plight of coal miners in her 2008 album, Coal.
As foreign as it is to her songs, let it be noted here for the record that Mattea is capable of leering. If in doubt, check out her appearance with Tanya Tucker, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Pam Tillis and Billy Ray Cyrus in Dolly Parton’s 1993 music video, “Romeo.” Now that’s red, hot and country!