Kathy Mattea present in her past

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen, CO Colorado
Singer Kathy Mattea performs Friday, March 23 at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House. (Kristen Barlowe)

ASPEN ” Since her descent from the top of the country music charts, a stepping down that was not exactly unwelcome, Kathy Mattea has stopped chasing hits, and started running down her past. The music she has made over her last several albums may not capture listeners of commercial country radio in the way that such songs as 1986’s “Love at the Five and Dime,” or 1988’s “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” ” a No. 1 hit ” did. But the music has resonated with the singer.

“The Innocent Years,” from 2000, Mattea’s first album in 17 years that was not released by Mercury Records, explored the sounds of her Celtic heritage, as well as her beginnings as a folk-music lover. “Roses,” from 2002, deepened the Celtic influence with an array of whistles ” some played by Mattea herself ” and accordions on such tunes as “Isle of Inishmore” and “That’s All the Lumber You Sent.” For her most recent album, 2005’s acoustic-based, song-oriented “Right out of Nowhere,” it was the process of making it that brought Mattea back in time.

“We recorded that sitting in a circle, like how I used to play,” said Mattea by phone from her home in Nashville.

Last October, in Aspen, Mattea revisited an earlier era when she appeared as a special guest with the annual Tribute to John Denver concerts at the Wheeler Opera House. Mattea’s first-ever solo performance, for a local TV show in her native West Virginia, when she was in 10th grade, was a version of Denver’s “Gospel Changes.” Several years later, as a college student trying to find something meaningful in her life, Mattea sat down in a dorm lobby with a group of folk musicians and played Denver’s “The Eagle and the Hawk.”

“To pull out stuff I hadn’t thought of in a long time, that changed my life, that were present at pivotal moments in my life ” that was amazing,” said Mattea, of her appearance at the Tribute to Denver concerts.

Mattea’s latest project takes her back even further in time, and gets just as close to the core of her personal makeup as the John Denver songs. The album, which is mostly recorded and to be released, Mattea hopes, late this year, is titled “Coal,” and addresses a subject that was a powerful presence in Mattea’s childhood and her family history.

Mattea was not exactly raised surrounded by coal mining and all the drama ” poverty, union activity, mine disasters ” associated with it. Cross Lanes, W.V., unincorporated, semi-suburban area of 60,000 ” “like a no-man’s land between the country and the city,” she describes it ” was centered around chemical plants. Mattea’s father worked for Monsanto, in several supervisory positions.

But both her grandfathers were coal miners. Mattea’s mother worked for the United Mine Workers before she got married. And both of her parents came from genuine coal towns ” one 10 miles upriver from Cross Lanes, one 10 miles downriver.

“It’s the backdrop against which all the family stories are told,” said Mattea, whose maternal grandfather died, and paternal grandfather retired, before she was born. “A lot of my cousins still live in the town where my mom grew up. There are a lot of threads there.”

Mattea was, and remains in a way, close enough to coal culture that she understands how significant the mining industry is in people’s lives. She compares it to farming: to a miner, a mine is more than just a shaft in the ground, much as a farm is more than a patch of land to the person who earns his living from it. The connection between person and place is thick and complex.

“There’s this thing about West Virginia, about your roots going really deep,” she said. “I’ll meet people from West Virginia who moved away 25 years ago, and they still think of themselves as West Virginians. It’s the same thing with coal: This is part of you; this is part of your heritage.”

West Virginia being part of the musically rich Appalachian region, the mining life worked its way into numerous songs, led in popularity by Merl Travis’ “Sixteen Tons.” And while there are plenty of songs about the difficulty of working the mines, the well of stories runs deep. There are songs about the unions, and even more about union-busting; about mine explosions and disease; about dreams of something better. There are even songs that express positive sentiments about coal mining; Mattea recalls hearing someone on a TV program saying that he loved the smell of coal.

“The interesting thing going through these songs, you get a love/hate picture,” she said. “People love the life, and are so connected to the land.”

Finding that faint glimmer of light, while surrounded by so much death and deprivation, gives the genre of the mining song its power. Mattea noted that Bill Cooley, a guitarist with whom she tours, said while recording the “Coal” CD, “God, I see how little hope there is to change things.” “Hope in the face of hopelessness ” that’s what’s going on in these songs. There’s dignity in that.”

Mattea has been compiling a list of songs ” dating as far back as the ’40s, and as recently as the ’90s ” related to mining. As she went through the songs, and thought about how she would handle them, she saw that she wanted her voice, and contemporary approach, to serve as a bridge between the old songs and a modern audience unfamiliar with the style of music. She worried that she herself might not be close enough to the songs to deliver them convincingly.

“It’s a real challenge,” said Mattea, who expects to include only one song from “Coal” ” Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Redwing Blackbird” ” when she performs Friday, March 23, at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House. “I grew up there, but I didn’t actually grow up doing that. I was scared. I wanted to do this stuff justice. I hate that thing when it feels kind of stilted.”

“Coal” features straight bluegrass, straight country, straight folk ” all styles Mattea felt reasonably comfortable with. But there was another element ” what she calls “Appalachian yell singing,” a precursor of bluegrass ” that she had only dabbled in before. And one song she was determined to do, Hazel Dickens’ “Black Lung,” that people tried to warn her away from.

But Mattea took on the recording as a chance to expand her artistry. She practiced the “yell” singing until she felt she could do it justice. For “Black Lung,” which got an a cappella treatment, she took six months singing it, recording it, playing it back, before she got it right enough.

“I felt I got to learn another layer as a singer,” she said. “It was going back and being a student.”

She also got herself a good teacher: Marty Stuart, the country star who is producing and plays on “Coal.” Stuart hails not from coal country, but from Mississippi. But at the age of 14, he went on the road with bluegrass great Lester Flatt, then played with Doc Watson and Johnny Cash. Stuart has also shown a deep interest in historical music projects: his “Badlands” focused on the Native Americans of South Dakota; “Soul’s Chapel” dug into old-time gospel; and “The Pilgrim” explored his own roots in the deep South. Mattea figures that’s enough of a background to fill in any gaps in her own musical knowledge.

“He’s really steeped in this stuff. He has a real reverence for that,” she said. “And playing that bluegrass with Lester, about the coal fields ” he has a feel for it.”

When Mattea began to slip into her Celtic side on the “Coal” sessions, Stuart had to drag her back. “He said, ‘No, you’ve got to stay on this side of the ocean,'” she recalled. As an exclamation point on the project, Stuart added a bit from “Wildwood Flower” to the tail end of a song. Stuart, said Mattea, had learned the tune from Mother Maybelle Carter herself, as genuine a source of American music as there is.

“It’s a lovely link to the tradition we’re from,” said Mattea.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is


See more