Folkmates: Mattea joins Denver tribute
October 10, 2006
I ask Kathy Mattea if John Denver was a big influence, and if Mattea were not such a sweet-natured person, she probably would have rolled her eyes as she gave me the answer that, in retrospect, should have been obvious.”If you owned a guitar in the mid-’70s, you couldn’t help but be influenced by him. And if you lived in West Virginia, it was like a religion, listening to ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads,'” said Mattea, who was, indeed, a teenager in the mid-’70s, and raised in South Charleston, W.V. “I’ve played it in more living rooms, on big stage, small stages than you could imagine. I had the songbooks and learned a lot of the songs and guitar parts from them.”But Mattea’s connection with Denver runs deeper than that of most aspiring musicians coming of age in the West Virginia of the ’70s. As a 10th-grader, Mattea was coaxed by a friend to make her first-ever solo performance, for a local TV show. She played Denver’s “Gospel Changes,” and the performance prompted a phone call from an anonymous listener, who encouraged Mattea to stick with music. “She wouldn’t give me her name, but she told me she had been in the music business and that the performance chewed her up and spit her out. She told me I had something,” said Mattea.A few years later, as a student at West Virginia University, Mattea was in need of something, something she could grab ahold of to lead her out of her “struggling” existence at the time. A friend dragged her to the dorm lobby and deposited Mattea among a group of folkie musicians. This time she chose Denver’s “The Eagle and the Hawk.””Immediately I found this connection with people with guitars,” said Mattea by phone. “That changed my life. So it was these two pivotal moments that involved John’s songs. He really had been a thread through my life.”Mattea makes that connection even tighter with her appearance tonight, Friday, Oct. 13, at the Wheeler Opera House. Mattea is billed as special guest for tonight’s Musical Tribute to John Denver concert, presented by the M.U.S.E. Foundation. The concert, a benefit for Challenge Aspen, unites Mattea – and guitarist Bill Cooley, a member of Mattea’s band – with a roster of Denver’s collaborators: local musician John Sommers, who wrote “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”; Bill Danoff, who wrote numerous songs recorded by Denver, including “(Take Me Home) Country Roads”; and members of Denver’s bands, including Pete Huttlinger, Chris Nole, Herb Pedersen, Richie Gajate-Garcia and Coloradan Jim Salestrom.The ninth annual series of Aspen concerts devoted to the music of Denver continues with a second performance tomorrow, also at the Wheeler. Mattea is not scheduled to appear at tomorrow night’s performance. Appearing for the first time in the concerts is the Glenwood Springs-based Symphony in the Valley, conducted by Wendy Larson. Perhaps the biggest attraction Denver held for Mattea was his simplicity – both in his music and his words.”One of the things, especially for me, I was new to playing guitar and there was something simple about his music and something innocent,” she said. “‘Sunshine on My Shoulder’ – it takes courage to play something so simple. It made his music so accessible for those of us without much skill. We could not only play it, but inhabit it and live with it.”
Mattea is no longer at the beginner’s level. Since her breakthrough CD, 1986’s “Walk the Way the Wind Blows,” she has won a pair of Grammy Awards, been a repeat winner of the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year honor, and earned a CMA Single of the Year for her hit, “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses.” But Mattea, who has successfully crossed from a commercial country sound to a folkier style, influenced by her Celtic heritage, retains her appreciation for the way Denver stuck to the basics. “There’s so much going on culturally where people are trying to be hip,” she noted. “With him, there’s none of that. He’s not posing. When you’re singing about being in nature, being in life, and then you’re walking the walk – he lived in nature, and lived a life about appreciating where you are. It really does hold up.”Mattea’s latest album, last year’s “Right Out of Nowhere,” has some strong echoes of Denver’s ethos. “Live It,” written be Harley Allen, is a reminder of the joys available in ordinary existence along the lines of Denver’s “I Want to Live.” The title track, by Christine Kane and Steve Seskin, is a sunny statement of finding one’s true calling. Song after song – including “Only Heaven Knows,” co-written by local songwriter JD Martin – offers a direct, heartfelt statement. Cynicism and irony are entirely absent.Mattea says she didn’t listen to Denver’s later albums. But, much like the teenager learning to play such unadorned songs as “Back Home Again,” she finds herself still influenced by Denver.”You know, I’m a folkie,” said Mattea, who will perform songs that meant a lot to her when she was younger, especially “Matthew.” “I grew up on that music. And at a certain point, you decide what you want to sing. I decided the songs better be a message I want to live in. You think about what you want to spread in the world. If I’m going to sing these songs every night and live in them like a tea bag in water, I want it to feed me as well.”Mattea adds that the simplicity in Denver’s music could also be deceiving. His chords may have been simple, “but they were never in the order you expected,” she said. When she rehearsed the bridge to one of the songs recently, “it was not where my hands wanted to go. It’s so unusual.”Mattea got to know the man as well as the music. Mattea had just released her Christmas CD, “Good News,” which would go on to earn a Grammy, and Denver invited her to participate in his Christmas TV special. It was the mid-’90s – toward the tail end of Denver’s life, and far from the high point of his career – but to Mattea, it was like Christmas Day.”It was a big old deal,” said Mattea, who spent three memorable days on a Montana Indian reservation with Denver, Patti Loveless and Clint Black. “Everything he did, he did in a classy way. When John Denver calls and says come do this with me, you say yes. For me, it was a chance to do something with someone who’s such a huge influence.”Mattea says the two never became especially close; she calls it a “lovely business connection.” But Denver did come to her performances at the Wheeler in the mid-’90s.
Mattea shares with Denver not only an approach to music, but a dedication to charitable causes. Mattea has been closely involved with organizations fighting AIDS; she is credited for being the first country singer to become so involved. She participated in the “Voices That Care” project, a recording which raised money for troops in the Gulf War. Some years ago, she was involved in a charitable celebrity ski event in Aspen.Most recently, Mattea participated in a cause that would have been close to Denver’s heart. Several weeks ago, she was in the first group to be trained by Al Gore to give lectures on global warming, similar to the one featured in Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Like the other participants, Mattea pledged to give the lecture 10 times over the next year, without pay.”How interesting that I’m coming to Aspen now, because he was so aware of this issue – and so early on, before it became mainstream,” said Mattea.Mattea said that Denver was not a direct influence on her decision to become so active in social causes. Still, there is a general blueprint – for music and life – that Denver created that many musicians have followed. Mattea would seem to be one of them.”I hear him sing, and I relate,” she said. “I relate to him vocally, lyrically and as a guitarist. It was simple, and that’s what I aspire to do.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org