Kathy Mattea sings Appalachia on Calling Me Home

Kerry Dexter's picture

“I had done an album called Coal. It was an Appalachian themed project, and it was really different than anything I had ever done. I did it because I had all this grief about a mine disaster that had happened in West Virginia,” says Kathy Mattea. Mattea is a musician who has been at the top mainstream country charts, and has always maintained a connection with the folk music that first drew her into country music -- and  connection, too,  with her native state of West Virginia. Mattea is talking about how her album Calling Me Home came to be.


“I realized I had heard this stuff, this music,  all around me growing up, and it was just so rich. I didn’t want to stop,” she says. Just after she’d completed recording for the Coal album, she came upon a song by  West Virginia musician Alice Gerrard called In the Cool of the Day. “Then I found Black Waters, and not long after that West Virginia Mine Disaster,” Mattea says. “They just wouldn’t leave me. I’d play them and hang out with the songs. Also, I had gotten involved with environmental issues and seen some of the controversy around coal, I could see how coal was tied to climate change. All of this life changing information had come flowing into my life, and I thought, okay, how do I express what I’m seeing in music? How do I do that without being heavy handed?


“I wanted to sing about what I love,” she continues. “Instead of saying stop this or stop that, I wanted to celebrate the things are worth saving, the part of Appalachian culture that is so attached to a sense of place, to the land itself.” It also required her, she felt,  to think about her singing in different ways as well, a process she’d begun when working on the Coal album. “I’d spent twenty five years in commercial music. I didn’t know if I could be transparent enough to pull these songs off, to just be a voice expressing a song.” At times, it took months of work and experimenting with finding ways into a song for Mattea to feel she’d reached a place she wanted to be.  “I don’t know that I’ll ever raise the hair on the back of your neck the way [traditional Appalachian singer] Hazel Dickens did,” she says, “but I found a place where I was authentic to the songs, a place where I felt I was still myself too.”


The confluence to idea and and process and creativity turns out to be an album that offers a nuanced portrait of the light and shadow that make up life and land in coal country, with insights and questions which resonate with anyone who loves the land, wherever that land may be.




The songs are drawn from the work of Gerrard, Dickens, Laurie Lewis, Si Kahn, and others. The opening track, A Far Cry, is a bluegrass tinged song of heading home to the mountains after a long absence and reflecting on what's been missed by those choices, while West Virginia , My Home, is a gentle and hopeful song reflecting on a well loved place. Hello My Name Is Coal holds both brashness and insight in its lyric.  Gone, Gonna Rise Again is a tale of the resilience it takes to make a living in mountains and the continuing connections of that through generations.


In West Virginia Mine Disaster, Mattea illuminates the life of a miner’s wife in those moments when word of a disaster at the mine comes, but before she knows the outcome. Black Waters and The Wood Thrush’s Song are two quite different meditations on change, in landscape and in what that means for the land and lives of the people who live in the mountains. In the Cool of the Day adds the ideas of faith and accountability to these ideas. The music closes with an instrumental piece written by Mattea’s longtime musical collaborator guitarist Bill Cooley, which is called Requiem for a Mountain. It is a quiet, reflective piece that both draws a graceful close to the ideas and music in the project and offers a bridge for  considering them further.


In addition to Bill Cooley, musicians who support Mattea on the album include Patty Loveless, Stuart Duncan, Emmylou Harris, Tim O'Brien, Aoife O’Donovan, and Oliver Woods. Bill Cooley has  several fine instrumental albums out as well. Alice Gerrard and Laurie Lewis both wrote songs which Mattea chose for Calling Me Home. Gerrard’s most recent album (at this writing) is called Bittersweet. It was produced by Lewis and issued on Lewis's Spruce and Maple Music label.





Kerry Dexter is Music Editor for Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com

You may also find her work at  Music Road, Journey to Scotland, Strings, Perceptive Travel, and other places online and in print.



Photo courtesy and copyright Kathy Mattea





Kathy Mattea's Calling Me Home: a nuanced portrait of the light and shadow that make up life and land in coal country

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