When Kathy Mattea was belatedly recording her 12th album The Innocent Years she turned horrific family health crises into an evocative musical treasure trove.

The death defying dramas reached deep inside the singer's psyche and pushed her to new creative peaks.

"This record was great therapy for me during a difficult time in my life," Mattea, 45 on June 21, revealed.

"I think it's the most personal record I've ever made."

The singer, who wed fellow singer Jon Vezner on Valentine's Day in 1988, returned home to West Virginia and aided both her parents during life threatening illnesses.

"We would record some - then some medical crisis would happen, and I would stop for a month or two," Mattea revealed.

"There were times when I stopped for three months at a time. It was interesting as I had a chance to get a perspective on a lot of the songs and live with them. I wouldn't have set it up that way, but I think the record is a better piece of work for the extra time. There was a point where I decided to focus the album tighter. I made a conscious choice to drop some songs and really try to go more with a theme."

Her father was diagnosed with colon cancer that spread to his liver the fourth time he had cancer.

"At one point he was only given a few months to live," Mattea added.

"But ultimately he was cancer free."

Mattea details the struggles in the Hugh Prestwood song, That's The Deal.

Her reunion with her parents and siblings in Cross Keys spawned The Innocent Years - the embryo and focus of this highly personal concept album she co-produced with Keith Stegall and Ben Wisch.


Equally importantly it was a welcome return to writing - an art sacrificed in her eighties and nineties heyday that produced a seemingly endless stream of hits and awards.

Mattea developed the theme of the importance of valuing the childhood memories of hearing her parents' voices in Calling My Name.

"People say to me enjoy this time because a day will come when you'd give anything to hear your mother say your name," Mattea recalled.

"Your hear that tiny voice coming over the hill and tune into it like radar. It made me think about that primal imprint it makes on us."

The disc is book-ended by the Mattea penned title track and its reprise with BFD - the bouncy bonus track penned by Don Henry and Craig Carothers.

"I thought it should be on the record, but I couldn't figure out how to sequence it so I added it as a bonus track," Mattea revealed.

"What I found was people see it as an emotional release after this very introspective album. I found the song. I couldn't wait to play it live. I remember how it was live playing gigs in coffeehouses on my guitar. I would look for songs like that."

Mattea reaches every emotion - faith in Troubled By Angels, stoicism of her parents' generation in Why Can't We and the joy of love in Out Of The Blue, I Have Always Loved You, My Last Word and Celtic laced Trust Me, penned by Vezner and Steve Wariner.

"I think it feels very natural to me," Mattea says.

"My albums have always been a reflection of where I am in my life. I'm not someone different than when I'm not doing music. I do it from my own perspective. I don't want to put a mask on. I want my mask to be true to who I am as a person. I'd never do a cheating song. I don't want to sing it, promote it every night, live there."

The title track, penned with Vezner and Sally Barris, yearns for time travel to just one day in the innocent years of adolescence and sets up a deeply moving musical journey.

Mattea reaches deep inside an asset rich memory bank and withdraws the evocative collateral that most of us would readily trade for the baggage and refuse that we discard daily in latter life.


The video, shot in Rome and given hefty U.S. TV exposure, is the celluloid cream on a gem - the salient signpost to the depth of an album requiring undisturbed listening.

Then you can ride the pure passion of Mattea's volcanic vocals - she has few peers to equal her country folk immaculate conception.

"I've been wanting to get back to writing for several years," she says.

"I did a workshop on creativity and expression. I didn't do a lot of songwriting, but I started the process again. It became great therapy for me when I was going through this stuff for my folks. I feel real safe with Jon and Sally. It was a natural thing."

Kathy Mattea >

"It's hard to make space to write with all the distractions of being an artist.

You really have to cut out some quiet time. I had not paid attention to it in a long time. I think of myself as a singer who writes, not a writer who sings."

Mattea, rewarded here with cameo roles by Kim Richey and Graham Nash, enjoyed writing with award winning husband Vezner.

"It's not always easy," Mattea says.

"You walk in the room with the underlying stuff of your relationship. Learning to leave that outside the door has been a real challenge for me but I'm getting better at it."


Vezner and Don Henry wrote her Grammy award winning hit, Where've You Been.
The song wasn't a big smash on the charts - it only reached number #10 in 1989 but fans related to the song.

A loving relationship between husband and wife (Vezner's grandparents) through the years - even in their later years in a nursing home - is recounted in a touching song where Mattea's voice shines.

"I was afraid. I didn't want to kill his career, and he didn't want to kill mine," Mattea says.
"It took me awhile to come around on that song. I knew the story. I was afraid that people wouldn't get it and that it would break his heart. Finally, I went to a writer's night where he played it, and it brought the entire room to tears. I thought 'oh my God. I can't be objective about that song. This is a monster.' I just decided at that point. I had to do."

Vezner has been a prolific writer for Mattea - he also penned Time Passes By, Whole Lotta Holes, A Few Good Things Remain and All Roads Lead To The River.

Vezner's frequent co-writer Henry also penned the novelty song Harley that broke the melancholic mould.

Mattea has released her 14th album Roses, and later Joy For Christmas Day for the indie Narada Records.

Roses features another Vezner tune, Ashes in the Wind.

The best tracks include a remake of Kim Richey's I'm Alright as well as The Slender Threads That Bind Us Here and Come Away With Me both co-written with Marcus Hummon.

Mattea, who produced the album with Ed Cash, continues exploration of Celtic music found on her last few albums, with the two-part instrumental Isle of Inishmore.


Mattea was born in the small town of Cross Lanes, West Virginia.

It's so small it's not even on the map.

Closest suburb is Nitro where Mattea went to high school. Her father was a supervisor for Monsanto.
"We had a great childhood," says Mattea, "your pretty typical all-American life. On Halloween, you'd take off, and no one would care where you were.

You knew who would give you the good candy. If your house got egged, you knew who did it. It was a small town."

Her musical oats were sewn when she started on piano at 6 and guitar at 10.

"I played folk music in church," she says.
"We had folk masses at the Catholic church. I was a sponge."

"A friend of mine's father had a bluegrass band, and I got into college and that's where I got into bluegrass and country music. They changed my life."

Besides playing in Pennsboro, Mattea studied engineering, physics and chemistry at the University of West Virginia.

She dropped out of college while dating a band member who graduated with a Masters and headed south to Nashville.

He invited Mattea to come in 1978.


She promptly landed a job as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame but quit within a year.

"Anybody who wants to be a country star should have to work at the Hall of Fame first," says Mattea.

"I learned so much there. I discovered Bob Wills there. I had learned to play Travis style guitar when I was 10, but my teacher never told me it was called Travis style picking after Merle Travis."

Mattea even hung out during her lunch break watching old movies.

"It was awesome," she says of the films kept in a back room. "I would watch them over and over on my lunch hour."

Mattea worked at the Hall of Fame " until I almost lost my voice, and I had to get out."
Around that time, her boyfriend left town (eventually to become a dentist), but Mattea hung in there.

She picked up some shifts at T.G.I. Friday's, wearing a heart-shaped vinyl record in hair, and was paid to sing in the choir at St. George's Episcopal Church, in the wealthy suburb of Belle Meade.

She also suffered vocal chord problems, requiring surgery, at the peak of her career.

"I warm up religiously now," she says, "I pace myself. I say no, and I take care of myself. When all that happened to me, I (started) an exercise program that I'm also religious about."


Mattea was driven from the embryo of her career.

"When you are young and you have a fire in the belly, that's what feeds you, and that's what feeds your soul," Mattea recalled.

"I was like a sponge, I wanted to do music 24/7. I did music in all of my spare time in college. It was the thing I had all my passion for. It didn't feel like work," she recalls.

She played clubs and squeezed in studio time at every opportunity, singing demos until Mercury Records signed her in 1983.

Though her first few albums struggled, she finally landed a solid hit in 1986 with Love at the Five and Dime, written by Texan troubadour Nanci Griffith.

She also scored with the Fred Koller-Pat Alger penned hits Goin' Gone and She Came From Fort Worth.

There was also the Susanna Clark-Richard Leigh tune Come From The Heart and Walk The Way The Wind Blows by Tim O'Brien who also wrote Untold Stories and duetted with her on The Battle Hymn Of Love.

She won two Grammy Awards and two Country Music Association's female vocalist of the year trophy 1989 and 1990 in a long, fruitful relationship with Mercury that began in 1984.

That label released 12 of her albums, including a platinum-selling greatest-hits project in 1990 and five gold selling discs.

She's notched 37 singles on the Billboard Country Singles chart, including four #1's and 12 additional #10 hits.


But it was 18 Wheels And A Dozen Roses produced by Garth Brooks studio wizard Allen Reynolds that won her first major exposure in Australia.

"That song got me the first time I heard it," she says.

"A friend who worked at a publishing company was sending out composite tapes of writers.

He would send them out every couple of weeks. I started listening to this tape and I thought these guys wrote from a completely different perspective. They were brothers, Gene and Paul Nelson, and I thought their stuff was really fresh. So, I took it to Allen. We listened to a couple of songs he thought they were interesting. 18 Wheels was the third song. He stopped the tape, and said "isn't that great? I said, who should we pitch that too - how about you? It was a trucking song. It never even crossed my mind."

Ironically that song, penned by the Nelsons who also wrote her hit Burning Memories, is earning more airplay than her recent material.

"When I hear that record on the radio, I can hear how young I was," Mattea says. "There was something real honest about it. That was the real magic of working with Allen. He was really all about heart - finding a song about heart, giving it an honest reading, and framing it in a way that didn't stomp all over it. I always loved that about working with him. Allen told me years ago told me I needed to know the entire process of making a record from day one. He just gave me an education. I like being there for every note."

The video for her hit 455 Rocket won a CMA Award in 1997 for video of the year.

She exploited her good fortune with the platinum selling A Collection of Hits in 1990.

Along the way, she also amassed five gold albums, released a Roy Rogers tribute disc with artists diverse as Willie Nelson, Kentucky Headhunters, Randy Travis, Clint Black, K T Oslin and Lorrie Morgan, and spearheaded the 1994 AIDS benefit album Red, Hot + Country.

top / back to diary