Born in the heart of Appalachia in West Virginia on June 21, 1959, Kathy Mattea started singing bluegrass as a teenager and in 1978 dropped out of college to move to Nashville to pursue her country music dream. She found work singing songwriters’ demos, and the songwriter Byron Hill was sufficiently impressed by her voice to bring her to the attention of Mercury Records, who signed her to a recording deal.
Her early career gave no real indication of what kind of artist she really was. Her first two albums, 1984’s self-titled debut (co-produced by her mentor Hill), were solidly pop-country efforts with mainly up-tempo material which seemed radio friendly enough but which failed to make an impact at country radio. Moving to Allen Reynolds for 1985’s From My Heart was a step in the right direction, but the album was still mired in the pop-country sound then popular at radio in the years after the Urban Cowboy movement. Mercury kept faith with Kathy, and tried a third album, allowing a fundamental change of focus.
Adopting a more rootsy sound just as the neotraditional movement swept in proved to be a great move. Kathy’s folky sound was just distinctive enough to set her apart from her rivals, while her pure, clear voice shone through the less cluttered backing she preferred. Although she wrote relatively infrequently in her career, she has been a great picker of songs, frequently popularizing songs from left field songwriters like Nanci Griffith. It was a cover of Griffith’s ‘Love at the Five And Dime’ that catapulted Kathy into country stardom, as the song became her first big hit.
It was the first of a string of 15 straight top 10 hits over the next six years, including four chart-toppers. She won Grammies for her performance on the single ‘Where’ve You Been’ (written by husband Jon Vezner) and for her Christmas album Good News, which premiered modern Christmas classic ‘Mary, Did You Know’. She was also named CMA Female Vocalist of the Year twice, in 1989 and 1990.
In the early 90s she started branching out more artistically, including more folk, bluegrass and Celtic elements, and while her song selection remained top-notch, she drifted away from the mainstream. When the hits dried up and she left Mercury in 1997, she was soon picked up by another major label, MCA, but her sole album for that label, 2000’s The Innocent Years was disappointing.
A couple of independent releases followed before she really found a new impetus and direction for her career. In 2008 she released the critically acclaimed bluegrass concept album Coal, which paid tribute to the coal mining community she grew up in. Originally intended as a one-off project, it has in fact changed her approach to music, and she builds on that with her new album. Calling Me Home draws on folk and the Appalachian mountain music which fed the roots of early country music, and is out on acoustic specialists Sugar Hill Records on September 11.
We will be taking a look back at her career over the month.