Review by Bokonon
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Country stars on the way down are much more interesting.
The list of performers who have found full artistic flower on the far side of topping the charts is intimidating. Johnny Cash’s run of American Recordings made him as much a punk icon as a face on Nashville’s Mount Rushmore. His daughter Rosanne closed the door on King’s Record Shop to open a window on her soul. Her ex-husband Rodney Crowell turned his attention from Billboard rankings to the chinaberry trees and attic fans of his youth, finding a new fanbase in the process. And the ever cantankerous and scarily hirsute Steve Earle decided that being a woolly Woody Guthrie was more fun than being a drug addict.
Add Kathy Mattea, to that list. Granted, Mattea as a character has never been as interesting as the suspects listed above, but she does share a late career renaissance. With 2008’s Coal and 2012’s Calling Me Home, Mattea found her West Virginia roots for the first time, turning deeper towards the bluegrass tinge she’d always possessed while unearthing deeply rooted songwriters like Si Kahn, Alice Gerrard and Jean Ritchie.
At her recent Troy Savings Bank Music Hall appearance, Mattea leaned heavily on such material. Yes, she dipped into her hit bag for “Love at the Five and Dime,” “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” and “Where’ve You Been,” but she was clearly more interested in the minor key melancholy of Ritchie’s “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” and Kahn’s transfixing “Gone, Gonna Rise Again.” Mattea, no slouch as a guitar player, offered rudimentary banjo on “Gone,” making its slow southern crawl even creepier.
In Troy, she fronted a small, sensitive band that, despite suffering from a dodgy sound mix, often flexed as one. Guitarist Bill Cooley, a longtime cohort, was especially effective; occasionally comping for Mattea when she wanted to tell a story, and dropping terse, sparkling licks when called upon.
Mattea, who sometimes coughed from the dry winter air, wears the elder statesman mantle well. She’s only 54, but she’s been making hits for nearly 30 years. Now that her records are aimed at the folk charts more than the Walmart crowd, she’s more interesting than ever.
And, if’n you ast me, she could just sing “Coal Tattoo” all day long.
Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “West Virginia may be the Rodney Dangerfield of our states: beset with fatal mining disasters and environmental pollution in a toxic mix of corruption and passivity. Kathy Mattea may be its most faithful mirror, reflecting with loving clarity the problems and the people struggling in her beloved Mountain State. On Saturday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Mattea displayed impressively courageous artistic growth since her mainstream country stardom, retaining the strengths that burnished that star: a gorgeous voice and unerring intelligence in choosing songs that make the most of it in sound and sense. She has become the bard of her people and her time. Mattea borrowed from Pete Seeger’s singalong formula, giving credit and noting (with admiration, not rancor) that he’d won a Grammy in a category where she was nominated, and she united the near-capacity crowd with her in a resounding and powerful chorus. She took her time creating this unanimous mood; at first the mountain dazzle of her band and the vocal flourish that elevated her nostalgic opening number awed more than enlisted. Guitarist Bill Cooley may be the fastest immobile-looking flat-picker around, David Spicher got (and earned) more solo time on Saturday than most bassists get in whole tours, and Eamonn O’Rourke colored inside and outside the lines with mandolin and fiddle zip. All but Cooley sang, and well, though none so well as silver-tongued Mattea.”
KATHY MATTEA SET LIST
A Far Cry
Lonesome Standard Time
Standing Knee Deep in a River (Dying of Thirst)
Gone, Gonna Rise Again
Hello, My Name Is Coal
West Virginia Mine Disaster
The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore
Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses
The Wood Thrush’s Song
Love at the Five and Dime
Come From the Heart
Everything Is Holy Now
Where’ve You Been
Calling Me Home