The Heritage & Legacy (H&L) series profiles musical artists who have been inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. Currently there are 62 inductees enshrined in the WVMHOF. The first feature on this illustrious group of West Virginians called for someone with outstanding musical credentials and instant name recognition.
In 2021, Mountain Stage, the beloved NPR program based at the Cultural Center in Charleston, WV, faced a similar challenge when longtime host, Larry Groce (also a member of the WVMHOF) announced his retirement. When Mountain Stage found their host, as a longtime fan of the show, we celebrated their choice with a series of brief, joyful affirmations: Perfect. Bullseye. Yes! Kathy Mattea. That works. And so begins the Heritage & Legacy series with a profile of “Stand Alone Artist”, Kathy Mattea, WVMHOF Class of 2011.
A two-time Grammy winner and two-time CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, Kathy Mattea grew up listening to the folk-pop music of Buffy St. Marie, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. In her youth she sang in church and around Girl Scout campfires. She had some classical training, as well, in which she learned to respect her voice as an instrument.
Hailing from Cross Lanes, near the state’s capitol city of Charleston, Mattea sang and played guitar in the bluegrass band Pennsboro while a student at West Virginia University in Morgantown. Members of Pennsboro, including Kathy, decided to make a go of it in Nashville. It was a big decision and initially, she did not get the results she was looking for. In a short time, she was the only member of her bluegrass band left in Nashville. To get by, she played the clubs and took a variety of jobs including waitressing at TGI Friday’s, being a backup singer for Bobby Goldsboro, and most famously, a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame. She has said it was during her time as a guide in Nashville that she really learned to appreciate and love country music. It broadened her vision of what she could be as a singer. Her vision broadened again when she started making extra money singing on demo tapes for songwriters pitching their tunes on Music Row in Nashville. Along the way she got a recording contract with Mercury Records and ended up with independent producer Allen Reynolds. They had a very productive relationship.
She achieved modest chart success with a pair of early releases, but her true commercial breakout arrived with her critically acclaimed third album, ‘Walk The Way The Wind Blows.’ That record produced her first radio hits, and its follow-up, 1987’s ‘Untasted Honey,’ was the first of five Mattea releases to be certified gold. ‘Untasted Honey’ contained back-to-back #1 country singles, as did 1989’s ‘Willow In The Wind,’ which also earned back-to-back CMA Female Vocalist of the Year awards and a GRAMMY for Best Female Vocal Performance. The LA Times called Mattea “a performer of limitless potential,” while the Washington Post hailed her as “one of Nashville’s finest song interpreters,” and People Magazine described her as “warm, strong, smart and generally splendid.” Over the next three decades, she would record nearly a dozen more albums exploring country, folk, Celtic, and gospel music; earn her second GRAMMY Award; top the Bluegrass Albums chart and garner an additional GRAMMY nomination for ‘Coal,’ her Marty Stuart-produced exploration of coal mining songs; and collaborate with everyone from Jackson Browne to Townes Van Zandt. Her most recent release is ‘Pretty Bird’ on the Captain Potato label.
In the Ken Burns 2019 documentary series “Country Music”, Kathy Mattea is a featured presenter throughout the series. She hosted the debut of the TV series at an event at the Cultural Center. Her career in country music is featured in Episode 8 – Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’.” (1984-1996). At one point she is being interviewed and tells the story of how her first, and later long-time producer, Allen Reynolds always emphasized the song, over everything else. Mattea earnestly tells the viewers, “Allen would look at me and say, ‘It’s the song pal. It’s the song. It’s not the bells and whistles. It’s a good song. Sung honestly. And well framed. Don’t ever forget it.’”
Kathy Mattea is a revered West Virginia artist, who gives back to her home state in a big way. She is a credit to her state. Find out more about Kathy Mattea at the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.
RECOMMENDED LISTENING FROM THE AUTHOR:
For the hits, and there are many, The Definitive Collection, from 2006 is the one. In these songs she establishes her vocal chops and exquisite taste in song selections. Her voice moves me through its unique combination of stature and grace. Try listening to “Where’ve You Been” from 1989 and not tearing up. “18 Wheels” is a personal favorite.
Steve Goff is a past President of West Virginia Writers, Inc.; and his record reviews have appeared in national music publications such as Goldmine, Stereo Review, and Hit Parader. An avid music collector, he is still hanging onto over 8,000 pieces of recorded music, 6,200 of which are on poly-vinyl.