HOW KATHY MATTEA GOT HER GROOVE – AND HER VOICE – BACK
Singers who carve their reputation as interpreters of other people’s songs face many challenges. Finding the right songs is the first hurdle, but figuring out how to make those songs their own can be an even tougher nut to crack. American country and bluegrass music is rich with singers who know how to inhabit a song from the inside out. From the Carter Family and Johnny Cash to George Jones, Alison Krauss and Shelby Lynne, they mine their songs to depths that render them anew.
West Virginian native Kathy Mattea has carved her reputation as an ace interpreter of other people’s songs over the course of three and a half decades now, and her instincts for a good song are as keen as ever. The songs on her latest album, her first in six years, Pretty Bird, include some fearless choices from the back catalogues of Mary Gauthier, Bobbie Gentry and Dougie MacLean. But lurking behind that long hiatus between albums is what she calls her “long dark night of the soul” – a period where she feared she would never sing in public again, as her voice began to morph in ways she never anticipated.
Having had vocal surgery in the 1990s, Mattea forged a very successful career, winning two Grammys, four Country Music Awards and seeing five of her albums go gold. But losing both her parents in the noughties, and a close friend to cancer in 2016, had a profound impact that manifested itself in her voice. Not all that surprising really, considering how entwined our voices are with our emotional states. But now, as she nears 60, Kathy Mattea is back on form, with a voice that she reckons was once a sturdy Volvo and is now more akin to a Ferrari. It’s been a long and winding road, but there’s much she’s learned in the process.
“You know, the truth is that Pretty Bird didn’t really show up as an album, ” she says. “I was just trying to get through something and these are the songs that got me through it. If you can let go enough, the creative process will show you what to do.”
Mattea talks animatedly about learning to sing “into the nooks and crannies” of this new swathe of songs she’s chosen. Mining everything from