HOW KATHY MAT­TEA GOT HER GROOVE – AND HER VOICE – BACK

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC -

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

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