By 1989, Kathy Mattea was at the top of her commercial game. She was nominated three times at the CMA Awards in 1988, winning Single of the Year for “18 Wheels And A Dozen Roses” and scoring an album nomination for Untasted Honey but losing to then red-hot K.T. Oslin in her first foray in the Female Vocalist category.
Mattea followed the success with Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh’s “Come From The Heart” in early 1989. Set to an infectious mandolin centric beat; the tune quickly rose to #1 during its fourteen-week chart run. The song, previously recorded by Don Williams in 1987 and Clark’s husband Guy in 1988, features a well-known refrain:
You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,
Love like you’ll never get hurt.
You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’
Unlike most songs from its era, let alone most music nearing 25 years old, the song is remarkable in that it doesn’t sound the least bit dated. That’s partly why it ranks high among my favorite of Mattea’s singles.
“Come From The Heart” was the lead single to Willow In The Wind, which saw Mattea once again teaming up with Allen Reynolds. This was a smart move as he kept the production clean and let Mattea’s voice shine throughout.
“Burnin’ Old Memories” came next and like its processor, peaked at #1 during a fourteen-week chart run. The song itself is excellent, but unlike “Come From The Heart,” it has aged considerably and the production, while ear catching, is indicative of its era and other sound-alike songs including Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “How Do” and Patty Loveless’ “A Little Bit of Love.” That isn’t necessarily bad, but it keeps the song from being memorable all these years later.
The third single turned the tide, however, and elevated Willow In The Wind to classic status. Although it only peaked at #10, “Where’ve You Been,” the love story of a couple (Claire and Edwin) culminating in the wife dying from Alzheimer’s, quickly became Mattea’s signature song. Written by Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner and Don Henry, the simple elegance of the tune made it a masterpiece, and the combination of Mattea’s touching vocal with the acoustic guitar backing elevated the track to one of the greatest (and one of my personal favorite) expressions of love ever recorded in the country genre (also, a must read article on the importance of the song can be found, here).
“Where’ve You Been,” one of my top two favorite of Mattea’s songs, was also her most rewarded. On the strength of the single she won her second CMA Female Vocalist trophy in 1990, as well as a richly deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Vezner and Henry took home CMA Song of the Year and Grammy Best Country Song honors as well.
Written by Pat Alger and Fred Koller, “She Came From Fort Worth” was the album’s fourth and final single, peaking at #2 in 1990. A gorgeous mid-tempo ballad, the track is an attempt at recreating the magic of “Love At The Five and Dime” and it works beautifully. Mattea is best on story songs, as exemplified with “Where’ve You Been,” and she shines here as well. Her confidant vocal and the commanding production suit her perfectly.
The rest of Willow In The Wind matches the high quality of the singles. Mattea’s astute ear for finding great songs is on full display on all the remaining tracks. My favorite is Bob Regan and Mark D. Sanders “Here’s Hopin.’” It’s a gorgeous life affirming number set to a pretty fiddle laced production that suits both the lyrics and Mattea’s gentle vocal.
“True North” is another elegant ballad, with Mattea playing the North Star and wishing she could be by her man’s side in the relationship. “Hills of Alabam,” co-written by Bluegrass vocalist Claire Lynch, is another similarly produced mid-tempo ballad, and another journey song, which finds Mattea on the road to home in Alabama. Even though they aren’t as strong as the singles, both tunes are excellent and work well in the context of the record.
The title track has my third favorite production on the album, in the same mandolin centric vein like “Come From The Heart.” In the later half of the album it nicely breaks up the mid-tempo ballads, and offers a sunnier disposition I find appealing.
“Love Chooses You,” written by Laurie Lewis (who wrote two tracks on Calling Me Home) is an excellent ballad about the notion that “You can’t choose who you love/Love chooses you.” I enjoy the sentiment of the track, and Lewis’s songwriting is strong as usual, but Reynolds failed to spark excitement by framing the track in a generic arrangement that kind of hangs in mid-air. The steel flourishes are beautiful, but something about the overall track felt plain to me.
The same can’t be said for Mattea’s take on Sanders and Karen Staley’s “I’ll Take Care Of You,” which is lifted by the fabulous threads of fiddle heard throughout. Mattea does an impeccable job in this country shuffle style, and brings the track to life with her commanding vocal.
Overall Willow In The Wind is a wonderful album that mixes tasteful production with an impeccable and classy set of songs. Mattea proves once again that she’s in a class of her own by recording songs that hold up well all these years later. My only issue is Reynolds was almost too careful at times, almost afraid to let Mattea loose. The mid-tempo nature of the production is almost too perfect, so careful technically that it robs Mattea of any wild abandon.
Willow In The Wind may be an example of an artist and her producer not taking enough risks, but that hardly matters. The results here are wonderful, and this album is a classic thanks to “Where’ve You Been,” the biggest risk of all. Of all Mattea’s hit making albums, this is one of her best.