A singer’s voice is her livelihood and her instrument. Kathy Mattea grew concerned about her instrument a few years ago.
“I’d go for some note that I’ve hit a million times and it would be kind of pinched or tight or flat and it just wouldn’t come out and I was like ‘okay, tomorrow night I’ll pay more attention.’ and maybe the same thing would happen or maybe not.”
She recalled an encounter she’d had with Tony Bennett some years ago when they were on the same bill. She asked him point blank how his voice was in such fine shape at his age. And he told her he’d gone back to formal training to re-learn his voice and that it had done wonders. So Mattea found a teacher.
“What she said to me is not that your voice is diminished. It’s just that the sweet spots moving around,” Mattea told WMOT. “So for my whole life I’ve known exactly where that is, so when I leaned into it to do what I know how to do, it was like no, it’s a half step down. Instinctively, it was 35 years of doing it one way that didn’t work anymore. So it was as much unlearning old habits.”
Complimenting the lessons, over skype with a jazz singer from Minnesota, were her long-running Thursday afternoon sessions with her guitarist Bill Cooley. There, patiently, the 1990s country star turned folk interpreter widened her scope and built a body of songs that became Pretty Bird, released this fall. It’s her most eclectic album in memory. Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe” found a home on the new album. So did the heart-rending Mary Gauthier folk gospel anthem “Mercy Now.”
The album concludes with the a cappella title track, a song written by a fellow West Virginia native, the late great mountain folk artist Hazel Dickens.
"I read that Hazel wrote this song as a metaphor about how she didn't think she would be able to find a man who would be able to hang with her for the long haul and let her be herself. She was so focused and such a strong personality that she didn't think she could find somebody who could let her be herself."
Kathy is featured in the upcoming episode of The String, airing Sunday morning at 8 and repeating Monday at 9 pm. In the full-length interview, she talks about the close knit culture she found on Music Row after moving to Nashville in the late 1970s, her mother’s struggles with Kathy’s stardom and her long, productive relationship with fellow West Virginian Tim O’Brien who produced Pretty Bird.