NBT Interview:Kathy Mattea

Musically Restless Kathy Mattea

with Mark Burns

Big stars shine over Solomons every summer in the Waterside Music Festival. The '98 season that opened with B.B. King closes with Kathy Mattea, one of country music's most powerful voices. Hear Mattea's masterful mix of country music seasoned with bluegrass, Celtic, Caribbean and New Orleans funk on Sat. Sept. 5. (7:30 @ Calvert Marine Museum, Solomons. $23 premium seating; $17 general: 410/394-6684.)

But here first in an exclusive NBT interview, hear Mattea explain how she's traveled the road to stardom


Q You've been in country music for, what is it, 13 years now?

A 15 years. I've been making records for 15 years.


Q How did you get started in country music?

A I grew up loving lots of different kinds of music; anything having to do with music was really what kept my attention. I'd played instruments my whole life.

When I got to college, I met up with a bunch of people who played a lot of bluegrass and country music, and we sort of formed a band and started writing songs. One of the guys was graduating and moving to Nashville, and he looked at me one day and said, 'You know, you're welcome to come with me if you want.' So I wound up here [in Nashville].

Q I understand you studied chemistry in college. Where was that?

A Physics and chemistry at West Virginia University.

Q What sparked the change?

A I was sort of the whiz kid of my family. I skipped the first grade and I was always an 'A' student. I did a lot of extracurricular activities and I figured, 'well, I can always do school in my sleep.' But if I have this chance to move somewhere, have a chance to move to Nashville with my friends, I have the chance of living a more interesting life.

Q Once you were out there, did you ever have any second thoughts?

A Sure. Oh yeah. I mean it happened all the time. It's very hard at first.

Q How long before you got your first break?

A There are lots of different breaks along the way, you know. But it was five years to the day - from the day I rolled into town with a mattress on top of the car - to the day my first single was released.

Q What kind of jobs did you hold in the meantime?

A My first job was as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Then I got a job as a secretary at an insurance agency, and that paid for voice lessons and guitars and that sort of thing. Then I wound up getting a job as a waitress because I wanted to get into session work and if I waited tables I could have a flexible schedule that would allow me to take session work whenever I could get it.

Q And as your career has progressed, have there been challenges?

A I guess the biggest one is learning to live on the road, learning to get that balance between the road life and a home life.

Q Do you have a husband and kids?

A I have no children. I have one husband, two dogs and a cat.

Q Does the husband come with you on the road?

A Yes, he comes out a lot. The band loves him; he's like one of the band. I don't see him when he comes out on the road because he's out playing with the boys all the time. But he's been great about that.

Q Have you found that country music is a woman's world as much as a man's?

A I think, statistically, it's been harder for women to have success in huge numbers like men. But that's changing all the time. Shania Twain is certainly breaking down a lot of barriers.

But for me I've been able to have the kind of career that I've wanted, so I guess I really can't complain.

Q What artists have influenced you?

A I'm a big Emmylou Harris fan. I grew up listening to all kinds of music. When I first got into country music, I was looking into sort of newgrass music, which was John Hartford and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. We had the first Little Circle Being Broken, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album, and then we listened to a lot of Crosby Stills and Nash and Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt and a lot of the singer/songwriters that were going on when we were in college. A lot of acoustic music.

Q Starting out, did you try to sound like anyone in particular?

A I really wasn't trying to emulate anybody, but I got pegged as 'the new Anne Murray' a lot because my voice is so low.

Q I've noticed that your music has evolved quite a bit. How have your record label and fans reacted to that?

A Oh, gosh, my label's so supportive. They really have allowed me to explore my musical restlessness. And my fans have been great. I've been very lucky because I've developed a real loyal fan base who are very interested in what I'm going to do next. It's given me a lot of freedom as an artist.

Q Do you consider yourself pushing the envelope of the traditional country style?

AOh yeah, definitely. I mean I love traditional country, but I have real eclectic tastes. When I get excited by new music, I want to go and incorporate what I can from that into what I do.

Q I've noticed you have a lot of Celtic influence in your music, such as the title track of your new CD, Love Travels, which seems to have a lot of Celtic flute and accordion.

A Yeah, I grew up in West Virginia and there was a lot of Appalachian music going on that was heavily influenced by Celtic music, although I really wasn't educated about it when I was young. When I got older, I rediscovered that and made friends with a Scottish folk musician named Dougie MacLean and have spent a lot of time in Scotland, hanging out and playing music. I think that probably there's a Celtic album in my future somewhere. I have to get this out of my system at some point.

Q So would that be your favorite of all the different musical influences?

A Oh no. I don't think you could say you have a favorite. Music is all great. I can get excited by some straight-out traditional record on the radio, and I can get excited by something completely different that's very far removed from the center of country music.

Q Have you ever considered crossing the boundary of pop and country like Shania Twain and so many other recent country artists have done?

A For me, I try not to think about the marketing part of it. I try to let the record company deal with that. I see my job as making the best music I can. Wherever it finds a home is great.

Q What do you try to get across to your fans with your music?

A I want people to feel something. I don't care if it makes them laugh, if it gives them joy or if it makes them cry; I want people to feel something deeply. That's what I'm trying to get across.

Q Do you have any favorite touring venues that you've done?

A Wolftrap is a big favorite. The Greek Theater in Los Angeles is really wonderful. The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, too. And the Ryman Auditorium here in Nashville is really wonderful, the old Grand Ole Opry house.

Oh man. There's a lot of really wonderful old restored theaters that we've played, old movie houses and vaudeville houses that have been saved. Those have been pretty wonderful. And we got to play the Royal Albert Hall in London and that was pretty awesome.

Q What's the biggest crowd you've played in front of?

A I played in my hometown for a crowd they estimated at 250,000, and that was pretty amazing

Q Do you have any kind of stage fright that you have to get over when you get in front of so many people?

A No. Occasionally when I'm in a different situation - if I change my show or when I take a different approach - I'll have some fear. But most of the time, it's your job to go do what you do and I've gotten more and more comfortable with that over the years.

Q Have you gone abroad with your music?

A We've toured Europe quite a bit, and we've done Canada. But as far as traveling across the ocean, that's really the farthest we've gone.

Q When you're on tour, do you have time to see the sights?

A Oh yeah. We have days off a lot. We just had two days off in Paris, and that was amazing. And two days off at Belfast. We just finished a European tour.

Q Here at Solomons, it's a relatively small venue. Have you ever played something this size before?

A Oh yeah. We've played all different sizes. We'll play festivals where there's 10,000 people or we'll play 500- to 1,000-seat theaters. Usually the more intimate venues are our favorite because my music is lyrically based and there's a lot of conversation that goes on back and forth between me and the audience and it makes it much easier for them to connect. Our goal is to make it feel like a big living room.

Q What drew you here? Was it a basic tour stop or was there something that drew you to this location?

A Well, I really like the area, and it sounded like a fun gig.

Q Have you ever heard of Solomons before?

A I've played up in that area, but I'm not familiar with that particular town.

QHow long do your tours usually run?

A We usually do about 85 to 90 dates a year, and we work all year. But this year I've pulled back and we're only going to do about 35 dates and we're doing an acoustic tour, which is another reason why I thought it would be really nice to come [to Solomons] and play a smaller place.

My drummer's on a whole kick of percussion instruments, and we have no electric guitars this year. We put the show together by jamming in my living room, and we just translated that to the stage. It's given us a whole new lease on life. We've all had a great time playing music this year.

Q Where did this tour start off?

A I can't remember. We don't tend to put together a tour and then go. We have a band together all the time, and we work year-round. And we'll tour a little heavier when we've just released an album.

Q \How does the band get along on the road?

A I have several band members who have been with me for 10 years or longer. Most of us have known each other for a long time. I've seen kids be born and kids grow up, and we've been there when band members have lost parents. We've been through a lot together, and we're very much a family.

When I hire someone for my band, I make the decision based as much on their personality as their musical ability.

Q How do you travel?

A We mostly tour by bus. If we're out west, we'll send a bus early and we'll fly out.

Q Do you ever feel tired after so many concert stops?

A I try really hard - that's part of why I don't do as many dates as a lot of people do - because I hate feeling like I'm on automatic pilot. I really try hard to keep the number of dates per year down so that I can enjoy each show. And the audience gives you back so much. You get a lot of adrenaline. I take really good care of myself. I sleep at least 10 hours a night when I'm out on the road, and I exercise every day, because it takes a lot of stamina.

Q Do you prefer going on the road to playing in the studio?

A I like a balance of both. I think you learn different things from each. They're two completely different approaches, and I don't think I'd want to do one without the other.

Q What plans do you have after the tour?

A I'm in the middle of making a new album, and we're working on some touring plans for next year.

On the side, I'm sort of gathering songs to make this Celtic album. That album will probably be a few years down the road, but I'm starting to work on it already.

Q Any long-term goals?

A I just want to keep growing, you know. That's the main thing.

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VolumeVI Number 35
September 3-9, 1998
New Bay Times