“I’ve had an interesting career arc,” she says. “And I’ve managed to land in a place that really fits who I am and what I want to do at this point in my life. I have managed to live through stardom without burning out, and feel very clear about how I want to spend my time and energy, musically and personally. It was always my goal to be able to look back from this place. It’s a good feeling.”
There’s a reason for her gratitude: she’s always relied on what she believes in — finding songs that best suit her and delivering them in a manner that puts the attention on the lyrics and the melody rather than on her own performance.
In an era of grandstanding artistry and pop celebrities who change with each new trend, Mattea has remained grounded in who she is: a folk-based roots performer and a well-written song’s best friend. She’s let her own instincts be her guide rather taking cues from what other artists are doing.
“If there’s one constant through my career, it’s my connection with songs and songwriters,” she says. “It’s never been so much about me or my style; as it is about telling a story or putting across a mood or a feeling. I’m not a real showy singer. When people hear me, I want them to focus on the song, not the voice that’s singing it. It’s hopefully a more transparent style.”
But there is greatness in how Mattea interprets a song, whether it’s as touching as Where’ve You Been and They Are The Roses or as rousing as Come From The Heart and Walking Away A Winner.
The West Virginia native came of age musically in the Nashville songwriting community, where she sang demos for rising young tunesmiths. Signed to her first recording contract in 1983, she nurtured that connection, giving a score of now-famous songwriters their first hit — and many their first #1. The list includes Nanci Griffith, whose Love At The Five and Dime was Mattea’s first hit in 1986.
Her recordings brought attention to such diverse talents as Guy and Susanna Clark, Gillian Welch, Tim O’Brien, Jim Lauderdale, Pat Alger, Don Henry, Fred Koller, Gary Burr, Larry Cordle, Mark Germino, Karen Staley, Steve Key, Craig Bickhardt and her husband, Jon Vezner. She also took the unusual step of looking beyond Nashville for songs, picking memorable tunes from such eclectic sources as Janis Ian, Cheryl Wheeler, Dave Mallett, Julie Gold and bluegrass singer Laurie Lewis. “Songwriters were always the people I knew and hung out with,” she says. “I looked at writers, rather than singers, as my peers.”
She also made unusual yet prescient choices when hiring musicians for her records and her band. She hired many musicians who went on to great acclaim as instrumentalists. The list includes banjoist Bela Fleck, fiddler Mark O’Connor, bassist Edgar Meyer, dobroist Jerry Douglas, dulcimer player David Schnaufer, pianist John Jarvis and guitarists Ray Flacke and Vince Gill (years before he became a household name.) She often blended renowned veterans with these upstarts, using Nashville veterans like pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, bassist Bob Wray and fiddler Buddy Spicher as well as such non-country talents as Michael McDonald, Graham Nash, Jonathan Edwards, Dougie Maclean, Karla Bonoff, Andrew Gold, Timothy B. Schmit and The Roches. “Because of the way we worked, I was able to get really good players who were artists in their own right. We didn’t make cookie-cutter records. Everybody who came in wanted to be there, and they gave 100 percent. We had a good time in the studio.”
It all came together to create a one-of-a-kind sound that set Mattea apart from her country music peers. She began to meet and collaborate with a wide range of artists from folk, bluegrass and Celtic backgrounds, and forged a reputation as a thoughtful performer with a healthy growing edge. She began to amass a fiercely loyal fan base, and began to set herself apart as a respected artist both inside and outside the country music community
“When I was first signed, the record company wanted me to be a country-pop singer,” she says. “But working with Allen Reynolds, we got to experiment and take our time and find out who I was as an artist. I had grown up listening to acoustic music, and the artists I loved most had a folk influence. So it made sense that when I got in touch with my inner folkie, I blossomed and my music started to connect with people.”
She wasn’t an instant star: she didn’t have her first Top 10 hit until her eighth single. But once she found her true voice, she became one of country music’s most distinctive and critically acclaimed artists. She’s won two Grammy awards, two Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year awards and her song Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses was named CMA Single of the Year.
But big-time stardom didn’t rest easily on her shoulders. “I wasn’t very comfortable in the limelight,” she contends. “I didn’t like to wear a lot of makeup, and the whole image thing made me self-conscious. All my friends were hippies. I didn’t know the first thing about standing out in a crowd. I was always the person who wanted to blend in.”
She struggled most when at the height of her fame. “I didn’t do so well with stardom emotionally,” she says. “I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It brought out my demons, which in a way was good, because it gave me the opportunity to deal with them. There’s a moment when you have to accept the truth about what you feel you’ve done well and what you weren’t able to rise to. And that process has brought me to a place of peace with where I am, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. It’s become simply my journey”.
Nonetheless, Mattea made the best of the leverage that success allowed her. Her albums always owned an adventuresome quality, from the rollicking acoustic sounds of Untasted Honey and Lonesome Standard Time to the Celtic influences of Time Passes By and Love Travels to the rockin’ sound of Walking Away A Winner.
“I’d get people who would say, ‘She’s cutting edge, she’s really on the forefront of a new sound in country music that’s very modern,” she recalls. “Then I’d get other people who’d say, ‘I love it that she’s so traditional.’ That was hilarious to me. But I think we were a little new and a little old. We were acoustic-based, so it had that tradition, but we did things in a fresh way.”
While in the national spotlight, Mattea took another bold step: she became the first country music star to make a public statement about AIDS when she addressed the issue on the 1992 network telecast of the CMA Awards. She later organized Red Hot & Country, an album that raised funds for AIDS research and education.
“I had no idea that saying something about AIDS would be considered so risky,” she says. “It just never occurred to me. So I don’t know if I can be objective about whether it had a negative affect on my career. It’s not my nature to be a political activist. I was publicly challenged to speak out. I had friends dying, and I felt I had to step up to the plate. It happened because of how it was affecting people in my life.
By the mid 90s, Mattea’s brand of thoughtful, compassionate, folk-based songs fell from favor. “I kept having just enough hits to keep me going,” she says. “I’d have at least one hit off each album. It was almost like I was being weaned from country music stardom.”
In 2000 she released her critically acclaimed THE INNOCENT YEARS. Her record label had undergone a difficult corporate merger and a lot of turnover on the staff. At the same time, there was tremendous upheaval in the country music industry in general.
“It seemed like there were a lot of decisions being made out of fear of what might happen, rather than dreams of what could happen. That album got some of the best reviews of my career. I realized I was in the wrong place. It wasn’t a good fit for me anymore.”
After 17 years with Mercury Records, Mattea asked to be released from her contract. “I thought if I stayed, I would be knowingly participating in my own misery,” she says. “I told them that it had been an incredible ride, and I was thankful. But it was time for me to leave. We shook hands and parted ways. It felt good to act in the name of my own self-respect.”
Her freedom in hand, Mattea and her manager plotted their next move. “I had nothing lined up,” she says. “It was a leap of faith.” Continuing along a path away from the Nashville Music Machine she considered small labels, major labels, independent deals, licensing agreements and even starting her own record company. She ended up signing with Narada Records, which had recently been purchased by Virgin Records. Well known and respected as a jazz, world, and contemporary instrumental music label, Narada gave Mattea the freedom to be unique and to explore new directions with her music. “The people at Narada are down-to-earth and do what they say they’re going to do. We get to brainstorm and we have a great synergy going on.” Finally able to follow her creative muse, Mattea let shine her Celtic and folk leanings on the first two albums on the label, 2002’s ROSES and JOY FOR CHRISTMAS DAY, her first holiday album since 1993’s Grammy®-winner, GOOD NEWS
For Mattea, it’s the process as well as the result that’s important. She is delighted with her current situation. She has a five-piece band that inspires and pushes her and she works with people she respects. p
“After 20 years, I still look forward to going to work every day, whether it’s in the studio or on the road”, she says with a bright grin. “That’s the barometer for me. My show is still evolving, and my fellow musicians challenge me to evolve as a singer, writer, player and performer. I still feel inspired about music. I am incredibly blessed.”