“Speaking Freely” show recorded Aug. 12, 2004, in Los Angeles.
Kathy Mattea: [Plays and sings] “Claire had all but / given up / when she and Edwin fell in love. / She touched his face / and shook her head. In disbelief, she sighed and said, / ‘In many dreams, / I’ve held you near, but now at last, you’re really here. / Where’ve you been? / I’ve looked for you forever and a day. / Where’ve you been? / I’m just not myself when you’re away.’ / He asked her for her hand for life, / and she became a salesman’s wife. / He was home each night by 8:00. / But one stormy evening, he was late. / Her frightened tears fell to the floor / until his key turned in the door. / ‘Where’ve you been? / I’ve looked for you forever and a day. / Where’ve you been? / I’m just not myself when you’re away.’ / They’d never spent a night apart. / For 60 years, she heard him snore. / Now they’re in a hospital, / in separate beds on different floors. / Claire soon lost her memory, / forgot the names of family. / She never spoke a word again. / Then one day, they wheeled him in. / He held her hand and stroked her head. / And in a fragile voice, she said, / ‘Where’ve you been? / I’ve looked for you forever and a day. / Where’ve you been? / I’m just not myself when you’re away. / No, I’m just not myself when you’re away.’”
Ken Pualson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely”, a weekly celebration of free expression in America. Our guest today is two-time Grammy Award-winning songwriter and singer Kathy Mattea. Welcome.
Mattea: Thank you very much, Ken.
Pauslon: You’ve been at this for a while. You’ve had quite a career. I understand you pulled into Nashville with a mattress on top of your car. Is that right?
Mattea: Yes, and a “Nashville or Bust” sign in the window. Really, for real.
Pauslon: There are a lot of people who pull into Nashville every day with that mattress or figuratively, a mattress on their car. Do you ever think about going over and offering a little career counseling?
Mattea: Well, you know, it’s very funny that you would say that because I just had lunch with a young woman who’s a brilliant songwriter, just got a record deal, and just had lunch with her this week so she could pick my brain, you know? And every year, I go and speak to the Berkeley students when they come down and just kind of, you know, help point their compass.
Pauslon: Nashville’s still a town that draws dreamers, people who have had some experience or none at all and who are determined to be stars, and most of them go home with their guitars in hock. But has the world changed? Was it a little bit more open for you when you got here?
Mattea: It was—well, Nashville was half the size that it is now. You could stand on one corner of Music Row, and if you turned in a circle, you could see all six major labels, most of which were in houses at the time. And it was just growing out of that kind of small-town community. It was—my longtime manager used to say, you know: “It was like your college campus pal.” And you actually got a recording contract pretty quickly. It was five years to the day when my first record came out, so it was about four-plus years.
Pauslon: And in addition to some early recording success, you had a chance to tour with George Strait?
Mattea: Yeah. Yeah, that was great. That was really great. That really was a real turning point for me, and when I went out with him for the first time, I had no hit records, and his audiences were so kind to me, and they treated me with lots of respect. And then my career began to get off the ground, and we just kind of kept it going ’cause it was just a really nice match.
Pauslon: People who are watching you now, a lot of them know your name. They may not always remember the full list of songs you’ve had success with. “Love at the Five and Dime” was very early. “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses”, “Harley”, “Where Have You Been?” I’m intrigued by the balance of your songs. And, you know, you are someone who has written songs, but you also clearly take a lot of time looking at other people’s material, making the right choices. What draws you to certain songs?
Mattea: It’s really a gut-level reaction. I mean, there are a lot of really good songs out there, and God knows, you know, the talent pool in this city is deep. But it’s a visceral reaction. It’s either I have to stop and just take a breath and process what I just heard, or I just want to rewind and play it again, you know, as quickly as I can. It’s that—and it’s got to be a primal thing, as opposed to an intellectual thing. It’s like, “Oh, that’s really good.”
Pauslon: And are there songs that you’ve recorded that surprised you in terms of their impact on the audience?
Mattea: Yes, “Walking Away a Winner” was one of those songs. I have had so many people come and tell me stories. And in a lesser way, maybe a bit of a lesser-known song, there’s a song that I recorded later on in my career. It was the title cut of a record called “Love Travels.” I’ve had some amazing stories about that song. I mean, “Where Have You Been?” obviously was just a phenomenon, you know?
Pauslon: Let’s talk about “Where Have You Been?,” written by your husband.
Mattea: Mm-hmm, and Don Henry. My husband, Jon Vesner, and Don Henry.
Pauslon: And most people have heard it, but just to refresh people’s memories, it involves the story of a very old couple in a nursing facility, and they’re late in their life and ill. This is not the kind of thing you would typically consider a commercial country record. Did you write it, hoping that it would ever get recorded, thinking it would be played anywhere?
Mattea: No, what happened for me with that song: My own personal experience with it was, Don and Jon had gotten together to write, and they came back with this song, and I knew what it was about before I even heard it ’cause it was a true story. That really happened with his grandparents. And I was scared of it just because of the subject matter, and Jon began to play it out at Writers’ Nights, and all the publishers in town had a copy of it on their desks, even the people who had nothing to do with it, because they just were championing the song. And I began to watch him play it, and I began to see the reaction, and I realized that I was too close to the story and to the vulnerability he had from putting that into a song to really be able to be objective about it. But once I began to see the way it touched people, I was like, “I have to do this song. I have to do this song.” But I never thought it would be a single. I just never thought it would be a single. I’m like, “Who wants to hear this one? They’re in the middle of drive time.” But ultimately, I think, because the song was about a great love and the kind of love that all of us sort of, you know, I think, long for on some deep level, and because it dealt so beautifully with the more difficult subject matter that a lot of people have a history with but don’t have a lot of context to talk about it in, I think it just— you know, it really touched a lot of people. And now my mother has Alzheimer’s.
Pauslon: So in today’s environment, could that song be recorded and promoted and sold?
Mattea: I would wish so.
Pauslon: Can you think of anything, though, in the last, you know, ten years that compares to that in terms of, you know, emotional impact? The industry’s been accused of sort of going to the lowest common denominator and homogenizing.
Mattea: Oh, yeah. It’s easy to say that, and it’s true, but you know, I think that’s the challenge as an artist, is to decide what you want to be about and to be about that and then let the chips fall where they may. So you look—you know, with all the stuff people can say about all that stuff, then there’s Alison Krauss, you know, who plays bluegrass music and always has since she was young, has huge success, and, you know, lives in our world but does it a little differently, and, you know, there’s an exception to every rule, and I think people can use the rule to explain away, or, you know, you can look for the deeper thing going on, you know. I think I would still choose to record the song, absolutely.
Pauslon: The period around “Where Have You Been?” was—you hit it big, commercially. You were the Vocalist of the Year two years running. “Where Have You Been?” was the Song of the Year. Phenomenal visibility. And you—you know, I think there’s a temptation for artists at that point to go, “I’ve made it, and I’m in a cocoon, and I’m gonna play it safe.” And instead, you chose that period to make a statement about AIDS and to be truly the first country music performer to come out and talk about the need for support for AIDS patients and the need to combat the disease. It wasn’t a really—it wasn’t a popular topic at the time. And in fact, you had a chance to be on a national television broadcast in which they were encouraging you to wear green ribbons to salute the environment, and you wore three red ribbons. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Mattea: Well, I had lost several friends to AIDS, and I had just, not too long before that, found that someone that I had met through the CMA Awards, ironically—he was a film producer and had produced a little piece on me when I was up for the Horizon Award, and we became good friends. And he had recently died, and I had been to see him not too long before that, and I knew something wasn’t right, but he didn’t talk to me about it. And it’s hard to remember back to when people really didn’t talk about it because you didn’t know who was safe and who wasn’t. And I tell you, that was the point where I just snapped, you know, just thought, you know, “This dear, sweet person is gone from my life, and he couldn’t even tell me what was going on.” And I thought, “That’s just ridiculous. How many other people are walking around afraid and isolated from people who would love to be able to have compassion for them and help them on their journey?” So, I remember I was trying to— you know, again, most of the major AIDS advocacy organizations were in New York and L.A. and Toronto and Atlanta and bigger cities. They didn’t know from country music, either. So I had to sort of go out and say, “Look,” you know, “I live in a different world, but I’m making myself available, and I want to know how I can help.” And the Red Hot project people, I met up with them and some of the people from AMFAR, and we kind of announced this Red Hot and Country project, and it was the same week as the CMA Awards, and I was publicly challenged in the paper. It said, “That’s great that she’s doing all this great stuff and all that, but the people in country music world are not gonna know what the red ribbon means. You know, they may not be as educated to the thing, and here’s hoping that she says something if she gets a microphone.” So suddenly, you know, I’m publicly challenged. And so we went to the CMA guys and said, “Look, I don’t want to buck you guys, but this woman in the paper has a really good point, and we should tell people.” And they gave me no answer. They were just very neutral and did not come back with it, so I just had to search my heart right before I walked out on stage. And I just decided that I had to. It just felt like the right thing to do at the moment.
Pauslon: And then you did this benefit, Red Hot and Country. Did you find the country community at that stage to be supportive, or was it a selective process?
Mattea: Well, you know, I’m not stupid enough to think that there are not people out there who were, you know, off put by it. But—and I know that those are not the people— they’re not gonna come up and tell me that to my face. But in the couple of weeks after that, there were some really amazing things that happened. The next morning, I walked in to one of those big cattle call morning shows. They set up, like, 20 or 25 stations from around the country, and they do their morning show live, and then they roll the artists in, and you sit in on everybody’s morning show. And there was this guy from the deep South who was kind of a legendary DJ, big morning jock, and he came across the room to me when I walked in, and he just said, “You are my hero,” and I just looked at him. And this was like, you know, you look up “redneck” in the dictionary, and this guy’s picture’s right there. And he just said— he told me his story about his high school best friend coming to him and telling him he had AIDS. And he was terribly prejudiced, and it turned out his high school friend was gay. And he nursed him through the last two years of his life. And there were story after story after story of people pulling me aside. There was an older man at TNN that we all knew that worked behind the scenes, and he came and said, “Thank you for saying what you said.” And I just looked at him and said, “That surprises me.” He says, “My son has AIDS.” And there were just all of these people, and that told me— I wouldn’t change a thing about what I chose to do because of those people and what I saw in their eyes.
Pauslon: Did you ever feel a backlash from the business?
Mattea: Not overtly.
Pauslon: You certainly didn’t stop contributing or participating in public causes. You’ve worked with a lot of different organizations. How do you make your judgments about what to support and what not to jump in on?
Mattea: Well, you know, it can be difficult, but what I decided was that I wanted— one of the reasons that I wanted to get involved with AIDS advocacy was that it had touched my own life. My father had had cancer when I was young, and he just died last year of cancer after about a three- or four-year battle. It felt like something I wanted to get involved in. And there’s a lot of cancer in my family. And so I try to do something that makes sense to me, something that I can speak to from my personal experience. And then, if there’s something else that comes up that feels like it fits in my schedule and the place seems like it’s well-run and there’s a good reason to do it, I’ll try to do whatever else I can.
Pauslon: Well, throughout the ’90s, you continued to record, have hit records, and at a certain stage, decided to walk away from a large record company in a new direction. What led to that decision?
Mattea: Oh, I’d been kind of chompin’ at the bit for a while, you know. I’d been pushing the envelope. And the people at this company were so supportive of me and really let me be exactly who I was. They never turned down a record. They never bucked me. They encouraged my artistry. They were incredibly supportive. There were some corporate culture changes. The place got bought out. Some of my champions left. And there was a big shift in the business, and just a lot of stuff kind of shifted at once. And I had made a decision early on after kind of having some big success that I— you sort of decide what you want to do at a certain point, you know? It’s like, “Well, do I just sort of put my stakes around this little piece of ground I’ve kind of carved out for myself and try to keep it?” Or do I—or is it about… the experience of doing it and digging deep to find out what’s in you and bring it forth? And that was kind of a choice that I made along the way. So when I got to this point where suddenly, there had been this kind of shift in my world, you know, in the universe, towards music, and I just thought, “Well, what do I want to spend my time doing?” You know. “Do I want to spend my time trying to second-guess the radio and go get facelifts and try to look younger and pretend I’m not in my 40s?” And it just seemed way too tedious and just not a place that I wanted to put my energy. I would rather explore being in my 40s and what there is to say about that in the human experience and try to bring that forth, and I felt like there were some records I wanted to make that were a little outside of the box, and it’s like, a voice is only a good, viable thing for so long, and I really wanted to do it.
Pauslon: Listening to your music— oh, I suppose, especially from Love Travels, Innocent Years, and certainly Roses— if you didn’t know your work, you wouldn’t say “country artist.” You’re somebody who’s embraced the world. And how did that come about?
Mattea: Musical restlessness, really. I mean, I was a sponge when I was a kid. I did choral music in school and community theater and just anything I could get my hands on. And I love country music, I love bluegrass, and I love acoustic music, especially. But I can get inspired by almost anything, and I started going to Scotland in the late ’80s and got into Celtic music and have this kind of world music drummer, and I just— that’s the most fun to me is to reach out and do something unexpected or find some, you know, new thread to kind of sew into the tapestry. It’s really—that’s, like, where I get completely jazzed.
Pauslon: So there have to be occasions where you’ve been playing overseas to people who’ve never heard “Love at the Five and Dime”. New audiences, new experiences?
Mattea: Oh, yeah, yeah. Or, you know, you go somewhere like Ireland, and you have no idea what perspective they have on your songs, and you’re doing “Where Have You Been?” and they all burst forth in three-part harmony in the middle of the chorus, and you just— you know, you just— there are those experiences too. Or recently, I played at a college campus where I feel pretty sure that a lot of the kids knew me. A lot of the kids didn’t. And I was doing new material, and they were reacting to the lyrics, you know, and I was singing “Junkyard”, and they just… And it was just—I just— oh, man, that’s just— that’s what keeps me coming back. That’s what makes me pack my suitcase and get on the bus.
Pauslon: You had an opportunity to give a keynote speech for Americans for the Arts recently, and you talked about— I was struck by your remarks about America’s theaters and having the chance to go out and walk into a theater that may not be in mint condition and may need some repair, but the magic of that and also the relationship between a theater and a community. I thought it was an interesting perspective. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Mattea: I’m so lucky, because we get to go play a lot of these old vaudeville houses and movie theaters, and a lot of them, you know, have been saved from the wrecking ball by the community, and a lot of them have become the point where the community unites around a cause, and then they all keep coming after the thing gets— they have a volunteer staff. There’s people who’ve stewarded it. There’s people come out— who come out and cook for us, you know, and take care of us, and it unites the community. And you’ll have, you know— people always come up and say, “Oh, you know, when I was a kid, I used to come here to the movies,” or, you know, everybody has their stories about it, and it’s preserving their history, you know? And it’s kind of this focal point for so many things to go on, and it’s just getting to be part of that and getting to be one of the people who benefits from the community’s efforts on its own behalf. You know, it’s just a win-win. And it’s just— that’s my favorite part. My favorite places to play are those old theaters.
Pauslon: So what’s next? A new CD in the works?
Mattea: Yeah, I’m right in the embryo stages, you know? Just in the, “Yes, it’s forming, but I can’t even put words to it.” But I’m beginning the process again. And it’s always interesting because, you know, your life clicks over. You have all these experiences between records, and each record kind of reflects where you are, and I’m starting to get a picture of, like, the perspective since my last record, so…
Pauslon: I’ll look forward to that. Thank you for joining us.
Mattea: Thank you, Ken. Nice to be on.
Pauslon: And now the music of Kathy Mattea.
Mattea: [Plays and sings] “Saw a movie where a guy kills another guy /… twice. / Don’t know if I could forget about it. / Saw a guy finish a fight with a butcher knife / … slice. / Pretty sure I won’t forget about it. / Is it okay / if I say, / ‘My mind is not a junkyard. / My heart is not a dump for all the gunk around. / My spirit’s not a junkyard. / No, it’s holy ground.’ / Saw a photo on the Net / I can’t believe that I’ve / …seen. / Pretty sure I won’t forget about it. / Two kids were playing in some dirt / that’ll never come/… clean. / Wish to God I could forget about it. / No one’s safe / till we all say, / ‘My mind is not a junkyard. / My heart is not a dump for all the gunk around. / My spirit’s not a junkyard. / No, it’s holy ground.’ / Got to keep, / keep the temple clean. / Tryin’ to keep, / keep the temple clean. / Want to keep, / keep the temple clean. / How do I keep the temple clean? / A vicious rumor went around. / Wrecked my Uncle John’s life. / Guess he never could forget about it. / No one’s safe / till we all say, / ‘My mind is not a junkyard. / My heart is not a dump for all the gunk around. / My spirit’s not a junkyard. / No, it’s holy ground.’ / My mind is not a…/ My mind is not a… / My heart is not a… / My heart is not a… / My spirit’s not a… / No, it’s holy ground.”
Tags: Speaking Freely