My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

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Concert Review – Kathy Mattea at Silver Center For The Arts in Plymouth, NH

Kathy MatteaKathy Mattea came ready to give it her all. Amidst a blinding snowstorm, and the after effects of the head cold that had eluded her to three days prior, she took the stage Feb 23 in the teeny 665 seat Hanaway Theatre (located in isolated Plymouth, NH) with just three other musicians, a caravan of guitars, and a message.

Of late Mattea has been outspoken on the subject of coal, or “Black Gold” as she sings in a recent song. Her crusade opened a so-far two-album floodgate, a life-changing detour into the Appalachian Folk songs of her West Virginian heritage and the most fully realized music of her thirty-year recording career. Her otherworldly alto graces the lyrics of Jean Ritchie, Laurie Lewis, Hazel Dickens, and Alice Garrard with the plainspoken beauty of a woman directly in line with her authentic center.

But even more impressive is Mattea’s ability to blend the “new” with the old, creating a woven tapestry linked by environmental cause, a deep sense of history, and a sharp ear. She opened with the first track on Calling Me Home (“A Far Cry”) before launching into “Lonesome Standard Time,” her #11 peaking single from 1992, without skipping a beat. She then graced the audience with my favorite of her singles, “Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thrust),” which was recently reinstated back into her set.

The intermingling of her past hits and newer material took me by surprise. I expected Mattea to focus mainly on the subject of coal, with a dusting of her biggest hits, thus leaving non-signature tunes as distant memories. But instead Mattea covered the hallowed ground between her past and present with the seamless ease of a songstress in tune with every note, paying close attention to every lyric.

Dressed in a mint green blouse, black jacket, and casual leggings, Mattea had the confidence of a seasoned professional but the cool of an everywoman; she was one among equals not a star singing to a crowd. Her greatest virtue was her subtlety, showcased through her candor and humor, on par with that of a next-door neighbor, a friend.

She greeted us like we’ve known her all our lives, commending us “Plymouthians” on our toughness in weather, braving a major snowstorm like a bright sunny day. Later she encouraged communal participation, denouncing those who belittled us for an inability to carry a tune, before having us sing loud and proud on multiple choruses of both “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” and “Come From The Heart.” The latter bonded us as a tight-knit family – she enthusiastically attempted to get us clapping on the offbeat, which wasn’t meant to be. Clapping on all beats didn’t work either so plan B had us singing “You gotta sing like you don’t need the money, love like you’ll never get hurt, dance like nobody’s watching, it’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work” at the tops of our lungs.

Further audience participation caused an off-script deviation into “Mary, Did You Know” and a proclamation that it wasn’t included with the $35 ticket price. She rolled with the flow, only grappling with the tune to see if she could reach the high note without her head popping off (she did have a head cold, after all). The song soared, and proved that sick or healthy professionalism wins out every time.

My favorite moment of the night confirmed another of Mattea’s many facets -her shrewd intellect. Her successful blending of old and new cumulated in a shared linkage – most of Mattea’s songs are deeply rooted in various fossil flues, albeit generally indirectly. I’d never viewed her material from such a focal point before, and she gracefully clarified her hypothesis, explaining how she’s singing about the diesel fuel of trains (“Lonesome Standard Time”) and the long hall truckers (“Eighteen Wheels”) to the coal. This led to a fabulous rendition of “455 Rocket” (fossil fuel: gasoline), her 1997 single and final top 20 chart hit. (In another showcase of her clever humor, I loved how she modified the line, “as we skid I thought I heard angles sing (sounded like the Beach Boys)” into a sly commentary on Beyoncé’s recent lip-synching scandal).

Mattea went on to grace us with more stories – how she first played the banjo in college only to pick it up again more recently, and the time she performed in newly restored theatre in Ohio, only to find out the majority of the audience didn’t know whom she was. She was candid on the subject of marriage, mentioning her and Jon’s recent (the prior week) 25-year milestone, gracing us with “Love Chooses You,” a Willow In The Wind album cut, and the song sung at their wedding.

Before “Love At The Five and Dime” she remarked on Nanci Griffith’s writing, likening the second verse to poetry, and shared that her classic “Where’ve You Been” almost wasn’t written, if co-writer Don Henry hadn’t been in the room. The latter came with a tale about a man with Alzheimer’s who’d forgotten his wife, until a visit in which she and their daughter were yelling at each other – and memories came flooding back.

Some of my favorite moments weren’t even the older hits (she also sang “Untold Stories,” another unexpected surprise) but the new material, even more simplistic on stage, than record. The quiet beauty of “Agate Hill” elicited tears, while her effective reading of “West Virginia Mine Disaster” showcased her storytelling prowess. “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” was a nice uptempo change of pace, and “Coal Tattoo” really let the band rip.

My other great joy, and the benefits of my front row center seat, was witnessing the nuances of the band in action all evening. Sitting that close, I was able to take in all that was happening on stage and watch the four musicians bring each song to life with the fullness of a full ensemble. The front row seat brought an appreciation to the evening that even two or three rows back would’ve made near impossible.

Seeing Mattea live was one of those musical highlights of life where everything comes together perfectly for a truly outstanding evening. She’s an otherworldly talent who has only aged with sincere grace and humility since her Nashville hit making days. If you’ve never attending one of her shows, or if it’s been a while since your last evening with Mattea, it’s well worth it to catch her when she’s in your area. It’ll likely be one of the best musical nights of your life. That was certainty the case for me.

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Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Coal’

Kathleen Alice (Kathy) Mattea was born June 21, 1959, in South Charleston, West Virginia, the daughter of a coal miner and steeped in the lore and culture of the coal mines. While some think of her as a country singer and others regard her as folk, bluegrass or neo-Celtic, I prefer to think of Kathy Mattea as a quintessentially American singer and just leave it at that.

While Kathy had an extended run of top-twenty chart success running from 1986 to early 1993, Kathy’s records became increasingly more interesting once the focus on chart success subsided and she focused more on music she found interesting. With Coal, Kathy reached her career apogee, at least as far as artistic success is concerned.

Coal has always been a subject of great interest, whether to folklorists, economists or politicians. Coal is one of America’s greatest natural resources and the source of heated debate on how to mine it, how to utilize it and indeed whether or not to mine and utilize it all. While I have always been either an urban or suburban dweller, my grandfather, Otto Jetzork, was a coal miner who died at the young age of forty-three from “black lung” disease, so at a young age I started reading about coal miners and coal miners.

Ms. Mattea selected an excellent group of songs for her album and an excellent group of pickers including Marty Stuart (mandolin, acoustic guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle, banjo) and Byron House (acoustic bass).

The lead-off track is “The L&N Don’t Stop Here In Anymore”, a Jean Ritchie composition that some may remember as the title track of a New Coon Creek Girls album from 1994. Quite a few artists have recorded the song including Johnny Cash. Kathy does an excellent job with the song which, with slightly modified lyrics, could apply to the fate of many company towns, whatever the industry

I was born and raised at the mouth of Hazard Hollow
The coal cars rolled and rumbled past my door
But now they stand in a rusty row all empty
Because the L & N don’t stop here anymore

This is followed by another Jean Ritchie song, “Blue Diamond Mines”. I think I heard the Johnson Mountain Boys do this song on the radio but I wasn’t very familiar with the song; since I find Jean Ritchie’s voice rather annoying I’ve tended to avoid her recordings. Given the quality of these two songs, I may reconsider and seek out some of her recordings. Kathy, as always, is excellent. This track features vocal harmony by another Kentucky girl, Patty Loveless:

You old black gold you’ve taken my lung
Your dust has darkened my home
And now I am old and you’ve turned your back
Where else can an old miner go

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Album Review – Kathy Mattea – ‘Calling Me Home’

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.

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Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘The Grass Is Blue’

Dolly Parton found herself without a record deal for the first time in 30 years when Decca Records closed its Nashville office in 1998. Throughout the decade, she had been losing ground with country radio, though her album sales had remained solid for much of that time. With the major label phase of her career now over, she decided that it was time to make a legacy record and partnered with Sugar Hill Records for a trilogy of critically acclaimed bluegrass albums. The first and best was 1999’s The Grass Is Blue, which is one of the finest — perhaps the finest — albums of her career.. Finally free of major-label constraints and commercial considerations, she finally made the bluegrass album she’d first talked about a decade earlier. With longtime producer Steve Buckingham once again on board, she assembled a who’s who list of bluegrass musicians, including Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Jim Mills and Barry Bales, and recorded a collection that included some bluegrass standards, grassed-up covers of other artists’ hits and four of her own original compositions. Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Claire Lynch, Keith Little, Patty Loveless, Rhonda Vincent and Darrin Vincent all contributed harmony vocals to the project.

The album opens with a spirited cover of Billy Joel’s “Travelin’ Prayer” that is so effective it is difficult to remember that it wasn’t originally conceived as a bluegrass song. It is followed by covers of The Louvin Brothers’ “Cash On The Barrelhead”, Hazel Dickens’ “A Few Old Memories”, and Lester Flatt’s “I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open”. The best of the cover songs, however, is a beautiful rendition of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”, on which Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski contribute harmony vocals.

The four original Parton compositions are reminders of Dolly’s tremendous talent as a songwriter. “Steady As The Rain” and “Endless Stream Of Tears” sound like rediscoveries of previously forgotten long-lost gems, while “Will He Be Waiting For Me” has a slightly more contemporary feel. Dolly’s sister Stella had taken “Steady As The Rain” into the Top 40 in 1979, while “Will He Be Waiting For Me” was a remake of one of Dolly’s own album cuts from the early 70s. But the centerpiece of the album is the gorgeous title track, on which Dolly’s vocal performance and songwriting, as well as the musicians’ performances, shine. “The Grass Is Blue” is vintage Dolly that, with a slightly different arrangement, would have been equally at home on her albums from the early 70s or the 90s. The album closes with an acapella gospel number, “I Am Ready”, which was written by Dolly’s sister Rachel Dennison. Rhonda Vincent, Darrin Vincent and Louis Nunley provide the harmonies.

Perhaps as an acknowledgement that there was little here to appeal to radio, no singles were released, but the album managed to reach #24 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and is credited with aiding the resurgence of the bluegrass genre in the early 2000s. It also earned Dolly a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, which, along with her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999, allowed her to close out the millennium on a high note. More importantly, The Grass Is Blue, along with its successors Little Sparrow and Halos & Horns, helped to erase lingering memories of some of Dolly’s less than stellar efforts from the late 70s and early 80s, and went a long way towards restoring her credibility amongst those who still regarded her as a pop sellout. These three albums were to Dolly’s career what the American Recordings albums were to Johnny Cash’s – they reaffirmed that veteran artists who were past their hitmaking days could remain relevant, and that their finest work often comes after the mainstream has stopped paying attention.

The Grass Is Blue
is still easy to find on CD and in digital form from Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A+