PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
April 17, 2007

Coal Miners' Granddaughter

by Jim Newsom

Kathy Mattea is working on a new concept album called, simply, Coal. Though she grew up in West Virginia, she’s no coal miner’s daughter. But she is the grandchild of men who worked the Appalachian veins.

“If you went ten miles up the river,” she said when she called from Nashville a couple of weeks ago, “there was the coal town where my dad grew up. Five miles down the river in the other direction is the coal town where my mom grew up. The area where I grew up had blossomed into a chemical center starting in World War I and really kicked up in World War II. And the coal mines had gotten all mined out. But both of my grandfathers were coal miners; both my parents grew up in coal camps. My mom worked for the United Mine Workers. So it’s a lot of our lore in our family.

“I had always squirreled away a few songs; I’d always had this record in the back of my mind. And then last year the Sego mine disaster happened. It really touched me, I think partially because when I was nine there was the Mannington mine disaster—seventy eight miners were killed and it was a big deal. It took me back to that time and I thought I’ve gotta do this record now. It’s been kind of a full circle thing for me.”

Mattea, who comes to the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts Friday night, grew up in an unincorporated suburb of Charleston called Cross Lanes.

“When I was growing up,” she laughed, “we had one stoplight and we had everything you would need on the four corners. We had a gas station on one corner, a combination hardware store and post office on another corner, a grocery store on the third corner and a beer joint on the fourth corner. What else do you need?”

She graduated from Nitro High School (“named after the nitroglycerin plant that was built there in World War I”) and spent two years at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

“I was the whiz kid in my family,” she said. “I skipped the first grade, I was involved in all kinds of extracurricular activities, I made straight A’s, was really good in math and science, and played music in all my spare time. When I got to college I found people who felt the same way about music that I did and I started playing with them and learning from them. After a couple of years one of the guys was graduating that I had done a lot of writing with, and he was going to move to Nashville. At one point he just sorta tossed over his shoulder, ‘you’re welcome to come with me.’”

After a summer of soul searching and heart-to-hearts with her parents, she headed off to Nashville in the fall of 1978. She was nineteen.

“I was young and naïve,” she remembered. “It was an adventure. It was a dream I’d had in the back of my mind for a long time but had never said out loud. I didn’t have to do it by myself and I knew I never would do it alone. There’s a kind of timing to everything, and Nashville had enough of a small town feel that I could find a certain comfort level here in a way I never could in New York or LA.

“I lived in a funky apartment complex called the Catalina Apartments that had orange carpet and green wall paper. The kitchen counter was bright turquoise. Between the kitchen and the living room was one of those accordion doors that you could pull closed if you wanted to have two separate rooms.”

She worked at the Country Music Hall of Fame because she was too young to be a waitress, and began to make contacts and sing demos:

“When I came into town it was a real pivotal time. It was right on the cusp of when Nashville grew up. You could stand on the corner and see all six major labels, most of which were in houses. It was still very much a small town and it was built on relationships. I worked hard, I asked for feedback and was able to accept constructive criticism; I practiced, I was professional, I showed up and did my job well, I kept my word, and if you do that, people want to open doors for you.”

Her first single, “Street Talk,” was released five years to the day after her arrival in Nashville. But it was another three years before she began to really make her mark on the country music charts with “Love at the Five and Dime” in 1986. After that, the hits poured out of her: “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” “Burnin’ Old Memories,” “Lonesome Standard Time” and many more.

She also became known for her social activism. Last year she saw Al Gore give his slide presentation on global warming at Vanderbilt University. A few months later she was selected for The Climate Project’s first training class, to take the slides and the message out to the world.

“I have the power point presentation,” she said. “Mr. Gore and some scientists trained us, and we were all encouraged to add our own point of view to it to personalize it. I have a slide of a strip mine in West Virginia because that’s where I’m from. It’s been an amazing experience.”

Now a performer who transcends genre, Kathy Mattea can make music on her own terms. Her last album, Right Out of Nowhere, included takes on the Rolling Stones’ anti-war song, “Gimme Shelter,” and the Creedence classic, “Down on the Corner,” and featured bouzouki, accordion and sitar among its instrumentation. Coal will feature pertinent songs from the ‘40s through the ‘90s.

“I remember listening to an interview with Kris Kristofferson,” she said, “and they were asking him about how ‘poppy’ the country music scene was at that point. He said, ‘Well, I moved to Nashville in the ‘60s and I thought this isn’t what I think of as country music. This all has strings on it, all that Nashville Sound stuff.’ And I realized this tension between the traditionalists and the pop people, the tension between the edgy, rootsy guys and the slicker, more mass appeal people, the corporatization and jumping on the bandwagon…this is nothing new.

“I have this friend who says you can’t receive the next thing if you have a clenched fist. It’s been a constant learning process for me to not get attached to one thing and to not hang on so tight that I can’t evolve. I learned that if I stayed centered in doing the music from the inside out, the rest of it just sort of falls into place.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.