She remains one of the most underrated, unsung heroes of the women in country music.
On Saturday, Kathy Mattea performs live at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia.
“This will be my first official ‘show show’ since the pandemic,” Mattea told WTOP. “I did one outdoor show in a tent in a parking lot here in Nashville, but this is the beginning of ‘going back on tour.’ I’m really excited, obviously. There’s a part of me that can’t believe it.”
Born in 1959, Mattea grew up in coal-mining country of South Charleston, West Virginia.
“My mom listened to Top 40 radio and loved music but could not carry a tune; my dad had a beautiful voice, but both of my parents grew up in coal towns and there was no money for music lessons,” Mattea said. “I came out tap-dancing and I skipped first grade. … Now they’d give me a big dose of Ritalin, but back then they didn’t do that. They just said, ‘Don’t let her get bored.'”
So, her mom signed her up for Girl Scouts, piano lessons, horseback riding and ice skating.
“I tell people music saved my life,” Mattea said. “I went away to Girl Scout camp when I was 10. … I was kind of a misfit. … Socially I was immature and intellectually I was ahead of everybody else, so when I discovered at camp that if you had a guitar, everybody gathered around. … Music did that for me, so I became obsessed with it. … I started playing music in all of my spare time.”
She studied physics and chemistry at West Virginia University, while playing in a band.
“One of the guys in the band I was in was graduating and he said ‘I’m gonna go to Nashville. You’re welcome to come with me,'” Mattea said. “I thought, ‘If he goes there and has this great life and I’m stuck in school, I won’t be able to live with myself.’ … I was a year younger than everyone else in my class, so I had a year to play with. I could go have an adventure and come back.”
So, she moved to Nashville and worked as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“I had just turned 19,” Mattea said. “It was a great job. I got a chance to learn the history of country music. I would go play Jimmie Rodgers films on my lunch break, I would go down into the library and listen to interviews. It was a wonderful thing. After about 10 months, my friend Mick decided he was going back to school, so I had to decide whether to stay in Nashville by myself or go home.”
She ultimately decided to stay and give herself one year to try to make a music career.
“I just buckled down and ate, breathed and slept music,” Mattea said. “For a solid year I did nothing but practice and make contacts. I found a teacher and started studying voice so I’d know my [vocal] instrument better, so it was a life-changing year for sure.”
The gamble paid off thanks to a chance meeting at a Nashville publishing company.
“I always tell young people to just keep turning over rocks; you don’t know where your break is going to come from,” Mattea said. “I walked into a publishing company with a friend, who was a journalist co-writing this article with a guy who worked at this publishing company. … My friend just casually says, ‘Kathy is a really good singer if you’re ever looking for a female demo singer.'”
To her surprise, he said they were looking for one and asked her to submit a demo tape.
“I said, ‘I just happen to have one in my purse,'” Mattea said. “This was a Friday afternoon, then Monday my friend went back to catch up on the article they were writing and said, ‘Did you listen to that tape?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘Put it in right now.’ Halfway through the first song, he hit the stop button and he said, ‘If you know anyone else who sings like that, I want you to send them to me right now.”
She did demo work until she was signed by Mercury Records for her self-titled breakthrough album in 1984, followed by “From My Heart” (1985) and “Walk the Way the Wind Blows” (1986).
Still, it was her fourth album, “Untasted Honey” (1987), that made her a household name with a pair of No. 1 hits with “Goin’ Gone” and “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses.”
“I was working with Allen Reynolds, a legendary producer best known for working with Garth Brooks,” Mattea said. “I lived a block from his studio, so I’d go listen to music and talk about records. He looked at me and said, ‘Kathy, it’s the song. If you find a great song, sing it honestly and you frame it well, it will not exist in any moment in time. It will be timeless. It will live forever.”
Her next album had two more No. 1 hits, “Burnin’ Old Memories” and “Come From the Heart.”
“‘Burnin’ Old Memories’ was a great record; Ray Flacke played crazy, wild electric guitar,” Mattea said. “‘Come From the Heart’ was really interesting. My manager found that song. … He says, ‘I want you to hear this song but you can’t have it. It’s on hold for [Don Williams].’ … I bought the album, listened and said, ‘They didn’t get it’ … so I quietly put it on my list for my next album.”
The same album included “Where’ve You Been,” about a wife asking her husband, ‘Where’ve You been?’ The tearjerking refrain evolves from falling in love, then arriving home late, then embracing during Alzheimer’s. It was written by her husband Jon Vezner and their friend Don Henry.
“It’s a true story about the last thing his grandmother ever said,” Mattea said. “At the Bluebird Cafe one night … my husband was on the bill and he played this song. … There were audible sobs all over the room. People were losing it. I thought, ‘Oh my God, it doesn’t matter if it’s sad; this song needs to be heard.’ … There was another songwriter on the bill that night — Garth Brooks.”
While Brooks signed a record deal that night, “Where’ve You Been” won a Grammy for Mattea.
“Jon and I got to take quite a ride together because of that song,” Mattea said.
After tackling Alzheimer’s, she also showed guts by advocating for the AIDS epidemic.
“The CMAs had decided to do green ribbons for environmental causes,” Mattea said. “All the major award shows were wearing red ribbons as a quiet way support people with AIDS. It was very controversial. … I lost three or four people in my life [to AIDS]. … Someone in the TV column challenged me and said, ‘Let’s hope if she gets a microphone in her hand, she says something.'”
Right before walking out onto the Opry stage, she put a red ribbon on her dress.
“I searched my heart, I did that, and for weeks after that … people would pull me aside and start telling me stories,” Mattea said. “A big DJ in a major southern city walks across the room and says, ‘You’re my hero.’ His childhood best friend died of AIDS who came to him and said, ‘I’m gay, you never knew it, I have AIDS, get over it.’ … He said, ‘It changed my life. Thank you for speaking up.'”
Mattea faced some backlash from conservative listeners.
“I was blissfully ignorant of the negative feedback because in those days there was no social media back then, so there was no anonymous judgy backlash,” Mattea said. “Whatever negative backlash I got was under the radar for me. … I later came to understand that it wasn’t without consequences, but the relief I felt from people pulling me aside overrode any negative feedback.”
In 2003, she recorded “Christmas Collage,” weaving together “O Come Emmanuel,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “We Three Kings” and “What Child Is This?” It was one of the only new original songs included on a compilation of holiday classics called “Now That’s What I Call Christmas!”
“The deadline was Sept. 12, 2001,” Mattea said. “We were going to FedEx the final mix on a tape to them, but 9/11 happened and they took every plane out of the sky. My husband, God bless him, was working with the engineer, and they found a way to upload the high-resolution mix … to a website that was secure and the people in L.A. downloaded it and it made it just under the wire.”