Coming off the supposed one-off side project Coal, Kathy Mattea found her purpose as a recording artist transformed from a commercial country singer to an Appalachian folk singer. The four-year journey has led to a full exploration of her West Virginian roots and the land surrounding the mountains where she’s from.
Calling Me Home finds Kathy exploring the austere realities of man’s desire for growth at the expense of preserving our natural world. The album richly chronicles the death of nature from many perspectives, and features the works of notable folk and bluegrass singer/songwriters Jean Ritchie, Laurie Lewis, Alice Garrard, and Hazel Dickens among others.
“The Wood Thrush’s Song,” written by Lewis, leads the charge with an effective thesis on the drawbacks of advancement within the human race:
Man is the inventor, the builder, the sage
The writer and seeker of truth by the page
But all of his knowledge can never explain
The deep mystery of the Wood Thrush refrain
The thesis makes a bold yet true statement, and I connected with the way Lewis used the plight of the Wood Thrush to hone in her main point about man’s relentlessness to grow, seemingly without consequence.
Kathy explores that sentiment on a more human level with Ritchie’s masterfully heartbreaking “Black Waters,” a crying out over the state of Kentucky’s decision to allow the building of a strip mine in her backyard. I was taken aback by the brilliance in Ritchie’s storytelling; how she layered the vivid imagery to devastating effect. The climax of the track comes towards the end, when Kathy sings about Richie’s lack of sympathy from those causing the destruction:
In the summer come a nice man, says everything’s fine
My employer just requires a way to his mine
Then they blew down the timber and covered my corn
And the grave on the hillside’s a mile deeper down
And the man stands and talks with his hat in his hand
As the poison black waters rise over my land
“Black Waters” comes off a bit too sing-song-y, a bit too commercial in feel. But the lyrical content speaks for itself as does the haunting combination of Patty Loveless and Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, which adds an additional texture to the proceedings.
Kathy continues her main theme on Lewis’s “The Maple’s Lament,” which is told from the prospective of a maple tree dying so the fiddle can live (Lewis is a master fiddle player, hence the elegant fiddle that opens the track). The concept sounds strange on the onset, but it’s a beautiful number about an element of nature (trees) we all take for granted.
A part from man’s destruction of nature, these songs explore the broader theme of home, whither it’s the structure where we live or the land we were birthed from. Kathy further explores the coal mining lifestyle on Ritchie’s disturbing “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” which chronicles the death of miner from the often overlooked prospective of the wife and children he leaves behind. Kathy brings it to life unlike any other track on the album simply from her authoritative vocal, which places the listener directly into the small town from which the song arises.
The title track quite literally rests on Kathy’s vocal, and marks one of two a cappella tracks on the project. Another angle on the idea of home, Kathy sings Garrard’s tale of a man’s final moments on earth and the friend there with him. It’s a beautifully touching story, and the lack of production furthers the emotional resonance of the track. The other a cappella track, Ritchie’s “Now Is The Cool of the Day” works a bit less well as it becomes a bit repetitive, but Kathy manages to save it with her compelling vocal.
Thankfully, not all the songs are bleak. Possibly my favorite track (that distinction changes almost daily) is Dickens’ “West Virginia, My Home,” a love letter to Kathy’s home state. I love everything about it, from the folk/Celtic arrangement to Kathy’s gorgeous phrasing of the lyrics. Mollie O’Brien makes the execution of the track even better with the lightness of her harmony vocal perfectly offsetting the richer tones of Kathy’s voice. This track is nothing short of magic.
“Hello, My Name Is Coal” is the closest the album comes to black comedy, as Kathy takes on the titular object in Larry Cordle and Jeneé Fleenor’s tale. The track also boasts the album’s sunniest accompaniment, and is the one most likely to get stuck in your head. What sold the song for me was Oliver Wood’s harmony vocal, raw grit that feels abstracted from the earth, mirroring the coal itself.
“Gone, Gonna Rise Again,” written by Western Pennsylvanian Si Kan, may not be the happiest track on the album, but it boasts my other favorite production. The plucky banjo opening is so ear catching you can’t help but be drawn in to the tale of a grandfather leaving life (corn stalks and apple trees) behind on his land for his grandchildren to enjoy as the grow up.
I also admire Mike and Janet Dowling’s tale of homesickness, “A Far Cry.” No matter where you’re from, when you leave your home for another land, you leave behind that sense of belonging engrained in you from birth. They capture these universal feelings perfectly.
What’s surprising to me is how much I love and adore this album. Calling Me Home took me many listens to fully embrace, as I found myself unable to grasp the density of Gary Paczosa’s production values, especially the slowness of the ballads and the choice to record “Calling Me Home” and “Now Is The Cool Of The Day” a cappella. But the more I listen, the more I connect with Kathy’s ability to bring each song to life in its own way solely with her voice, and that was my ticket to appreciating the record as a whole. I’m also an avid nature lover and connected with Calling Me Home on that level as well.
I’ve since come to understand Calling Me Home as a declaration of Kathy’s authentic self, her Mountain Soul, the portrait of a woman operating from an authoritative space deep within. These aren’t merely emotionally driven vocal performances but glimpses into her core. There’s a palpable urgency to her singing that drives the record from start to finish, a need to spread these messages to anyone who’ll listen. She’s never sounded so grounded, so pure, as she does here.
This is the music Kathy was put on earth to sing, and I cannot wait to witness the journey she takes with this record, and what will follow in the years to come. I feel like I’m discovering the breadth of her talent for the first time, in the same way she’s discovering her purpose as a recording artist.
I cannot recommend this album enough.
Here’s The EPK: