As Nashville's Voice of Reason, Kathy Mattea Practices What She Teaches

As Nashville's Voice of Reason, Kathy Mattea Practices What She Teaches
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On the road again after taking an extended break in 2015, singer-songwriter Kathy Mattea recently decided to grant a request from the audience to perform one of the tunes she wrote for a record released in 1986.

Such occurrences aren't unusual for touring musicians, especially when you're a Grammy Award winner with a full, fluid voice who's recorded 18 albums during an illustrious career in Nashville.

Yet something happened to Mattea that night, a feeling she had never experienced before, as she sang "Leaving West Virginia."

"I just burst into tears in the middle of my own show," Mattea revealed during a phone interview earlier this month en route to New York for a show at Joe's Pub the next night.

"This moment happened where it was like my young self was talking to my middle-age self and my own words kind of came ... it's like I was talking to me," Mattea explained. "And I just had to stop in the middle of the song and just take a breath, step back from the mic and everybody was just very quiet and respectful. And then I came back in. It was really something."

Along with songs familiar or courageously fresh, expect Mattea to share more heartwarming stories and wistful memories this week during her visit to Planet Bluegrass in Lyons, Colorado.

It all begins today (August 15), with the opening of the four-day Song School that takes place every year before the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, where she will hit the main stage at 3:45 p.m. on August 20.

Mattea, whose No. 1 country hits include "Goin' Gone," "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses" and "Come From the Heart" knows a lot about peak performances. Her Colorado connection includes many visits to friends in Boulder, the college town southeast of Lyons, and ski trips to Crested Butte, the resort where she and her husband, Grammy-winning songwriter Jon Vezner, went on their honeymoon in 1988. That same year "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses" won three country music awards.

Doing double duty this week will be capped by Mattea's first Folks Festival appearance in Lyons, though. Her set might surprise many who primarily remember her as the Country Music Association Awards' female vocalist of the year in 1989 and 1990.

Happy to be touring again after taking some time off last year to readjust, rethink where she wanted to go musically and "play for the sake of playing," Mattea said, "I spent a lot of time in my living room with my guitar and my guitarist Bill Cooley, and we just have gone over songs and explored nooks and crannies of the kind of songs that I never would have tried before. ...

"I found a voice teacher and I started kind of digging in and just really, really rededicating myself to just sort of keeping my instrument maintained and getting to know my voice again. Because you hit a certain point, you think 'Oh, I know how to do this.' And all of a sudden, you're really not doing it anymore. You're just going through the motions. ... I just felt like it was a time to kind of renew everything."

Back performing with the versatile Cooley since last fall, Mattea is bringing her homey approach to you with a show called "The Acoustic Living Room."

So while her country chestnuts are still part of the act, she also delves into blues and jazz on an intimate musical journey that includes "all kinds of crazy things that I never would do otherwise."

Mattea prefers to keep her Folks Festival song selections a surprise, so there's no need for a spoiler alert here, but some of her set lists and video clips from previous shows can be found online.

Admitting she's always been a bit restless musically since leaving her West Virginia home as a college dropout at the age of 19 for Nashville in 1978, Mattea began searching for new material that would teach her something.

Asked what led to that decision, she said, "Well, I'd been singing for a long time. And so after a while, for me every so often, I have to find a new inspiration, a new way into what I'm doing to keep it alive. I always said that I would never be a person who just goes out there and goes through the motions. I just can't do it. ... Some songs, the old way didn't feel like it worked anymore but I couldn't put my finger on what wasn't working."

While thrilled to see country music thriving these days, the fan of Brad Paisley and Americana artists such as Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton said she even likes the current work of Taylor Swift "mostly because it's based in good songwriting."

Mattea's search didn't lead her to "Shake It Off" or any other mega-hits by the Music City's one-time teen queen. This longtime Nashvillian did discover "all kinds of new things, some of which never saw the light of day, will never be heard by another human being," Mattea said with a laugh. "But some have really come on and really opened up some new things in my voice."

No matter what style Mattea attempts, expect it to be delivered with equal parts passion and compassion.

Pleased to find a niche in country music during a time when authenticity still mattered, Mattea considered the '80s to be a renaissance period for musicians in Nashville. As she developed friendships with fellow performers like Suzy Bogguss, Nancy Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter, Texas tornadoes such as Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett were causing a stir in the Music City, too.

"A lot of really great songwriting was the basis of a lot of what was going on in radio then," Mattea said.

The "sponge" who was "completely eaten up by music" learned from some of the best in the business, including producer Allen Reynolds, who went on to work with Garth Brooks and other industry giants.

"He really taught me about good songs and just sort of the heart of the matter," Mattea said. "He was like, 'You can make fancy records pal, but it's the song that's gonna be timeless. That's the heart of everything.' So he taught me some really grounding approaches early on."

Mattea said the best advice of her career came from Reynolds, a straight shooter who helped change the course of decisions she made over the years.

"He just kept saying, 'You can hear trends in music, you can hear what everybody else is doing, you can try to match what's going on in radio or you can go find the absolute best song you can find and sing it as honestly as you can and frame it well,' " Mattea recalled, looking back to her 20s, when she was still an impressionable artist. "He said, 'That's the record they'll still be playing on the radio 20 years from now.' "

Today, Mattea is dishing out knowledge and advice instead of receiving it.

Having been part of the distinguished staff that travels to the Swannanoa Gathering in Asheville, N.C., every year, Mattea said, "It's just very, very fun for me because there's not a lot of context where you sit with people who are digging into their own potential as artists in a serious way. And I love talking about that. I love talking about all aspects of it."

Without identifying a promising woman from Colorado who attends Swannanoa almost every year, Mattea mentioned the joy of watching the progression of a musician who has developed into a phenom.

"I think some part of me gets really excited, especially by the young people, because I would have been that kid," Mattea said. "There just wasn't anything like that when I was growing up."

As a guest instructor at the Song School, where she's leading the opening and closing ceremonies and teaching some performance master classes, Mattea said, "When it's really good, nobody's really teaching. It's more of a discussion. ... And so I always come out just completely inspired. And it keeps me going for a while."

Her Song School class, Mattea wrote students in an introductory summary, will find out "about listening to our own inner guidance and how to balance that with the outside voices that we also need to take into consideration."

Along the way, Mattea is educating herself as well. The compelling public speaker who's also heavily involved in charitable work and social and environmental activism hasn't made recording a priority since the 2012 release of Calling Me Home, which proudly celebrates the Appalachian culture of her home state.

"I'm overdue for a record right now but I wanted to see this process through of working through these new songs," Mattea said. "And so I'm trying to be patient but I'm hoping to get back in the studio either this fall or the winter. ... I still feel like I'm growing into this. And some of these songs are still teaching me."

As someone eager to learn whether serving as student or instructor, Mattea and her class act deserve high marks.

Second in a series. See Part 1 on the Accidentals. Publicity photos by David McClister. Tickets for the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival are available at:

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