Boston Folk Fest Headliner Kathy Mattea Drills Deep Into Anguish And Resilience
|This appeared in the Patriot-Ledger - September 12, 2008|
Kathy Mattea went through the Nashville star-making machinery, and emerged with her creativity intact. She had a few hits, won a Grammy, established a name for herself, and has no hard feelings.
Light-years away from contemporary country, her latest album, Coal, is closer to folk. Mattea headlines this weekends 2008 Boston Folk Festival at UMass-Boston. She is scheduled to perform at about 5:30 p.m. Sunday.
Coal is a theme album about the coal miners she grew up around. Mattea, 49, a native of Cross Lanes, W.Va., worked with producer Marty Stuart, a refugee from Nashville. Together they turned out a stunning piece of work. Most of the instrumentation is acoustic, quartets or less, and the simple power of the songs shines through.
Its a moving album, but a long way from what some might expect from a decorated country and western star.
My impetus for this record came out of watching the Sago Mine disaster in 2006, Mattea said. I had a very hard time watching that whole story unfold, since I knew people like that my whole life. Both my grandfathers were coal miners.
Coal mining is still not an easy life, and songs like Si Kahns tribute to a mining strike martyr, Lawrence Jones, bring that home emphatically.
Perhaps one of the most surprising songwriters represented is Billy Edd Wheeler, who penned a couple of hits in the 1970s, Coward of the County and Jackson. But here Wheeler inhabits the coal mining life, and songs like Coal Tattoo display a gritty and affecting side of the writer. Other songs come from U. Utah Phillips, Merle Travis and Darrell Scott.
The most arresting song of all is Matteas treatment of Hazel Dickens Black Lung, a heart-rending tale of that miners scourge that the singer delivers a cappella to chilling effect.
Some of the songs are iconic, and others are forgotten or have never been heard widely, said Mattea. I wish that my record will be commercial enough so that someone who has never heard Hazel Dickens, for instance, might try this album and get a window into her music. Utah Phillips (who died this year) is the only writer here I didnt get to meet, and talking to some of these writers was a very valuable part of this.
Mattea said she feared her voice was too commercial for these songs.
Thats why having Marty Stuart on board was crucial. Hes been steeped in hillbilly music since he was a teenager, and if I was off base on something, I knew hed tell me.
Coal it is not a wholly downbeat or depressing album. It is, essentially, a document of human tenacity in the face of limited options and dangerous work. These are not all discouraging tunes, and we didnt want that.
Without a doubt, the a cappella reading of Black Lung was the most challenging moment on the album. Even for a singer with Matteas track record, delivering such a powerful song with just her voice was daunting, and the prospect of adding nuances and her own interpretation made it more so. Even after consulting with Hazel Dickens herself, Mattea was hesitant.
It took me six months of working on that song before I would consider singing it for other people, Mattea said. One day we had about an hour left in the studio, and Marty said lets try it. I went in and sang it once and it was OK, but I felt I could do more if I did it again. Marty kept saying come into the control room and listen to the playback, and I kept saying I wanted another run at it. But Marty was adamant, and so I went into the control room to listen, and our engineer who weve known for 20 years, was there with tears streaming down his face. His father had died of black lung disease, and my version had just had such an effect on him. Marty was right, wed gotten it.
Mattea will be bring a band consisting of guitar, upright bass and mandolin/fiddle for her show. Shes still almost giddy at the idea of performing in this new format, and discovering new facets of her voice.
Im honored to be asked to play at the Boston Folk Fest, she said. It is interesting; this album has opened up more festivals and coffeehouse-type gigs for us. And I get the sense that people are discovering this kind of music for the first time, which makes me feel wonderful.
By Jay Miller
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