On September 7th, CMA Award-winning vocalist Kathy Mattea will release Pretty Bird, her first new album in six years. A sublime acoustic collection including a number of smartly chosen and heartfelt covers, the record marks something of a new era in Mattea’s 30-plus-year career. Over the past several years her deep, rich singing voice has experienced significant changes that could have put a permanent end to her performing, but after extensive vocal training she has emerged from what she refers to as her “dark night of the soul” with a duskier instrument. That newly trained but still memorable voice, which gave country fans such hits as “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” and “Love at the Five and Dime,” is at the very heart of one of the year’s most affecting LPs.
“This album has led me, slowly and unexpectedly, into new nooks and crannies of singing,” Mattea tells Rolling Stone Country. “Songs showed up in random ways… and became part of our musical landscape during regular Thursday jam sessions in my living room. It’s a very eclectic collection, and for me, each song has a very specific reason for being here, showing me some new point of view about singing along the way.”
One of country music’s most successful artists of the past several decades, Mattea, a two-time Grammy winner, has always approached her material, even the most mainstream country, with an eclecticism and sense of deeper meaning. Those elements are vibrantly evident on “I Can’t Stand Up Alone,” the first track to premiere from the upcoming collection, which was produced by Mattea’s longtime friend and frequent collaborator Tim O’Brien. Written by country-gospel legend Martha Carson in the Fifties, Mattea’s soulful version is a sparkling mélange of those genres, with touches of blues and Appalachian mountain music. The uplifting tune serves as a fitting tribute to singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester, who died in 2014, and whose version inspired this one.
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“I’ve always loved [his] version of this song,” Mattea says. “I saw him at [Nashville’s] old Exit/In when I was about 20 years old, and I remember him singing it that night. When he died, I was watching YouTube videos of him out on the road, and remembered this. We kept trying to find a way to make it work for us in our live show, and Bill Cooley came up with this cool guitar lick as a backdrop. He was thinking of a kind of Little Feat funky soul style, but by the time we finished it in the studio with Tim, it had gone full tilt Jug Band. I love it, and have had so much fun singing it live – especially when I can have a bunch of backup singers!”
Mattea’s always impeccable taste for fellow artists and writers is once again evident on Pretty Bird, with the sorrowful title cut coming from iconic bluegrass singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens. Performed a cappella, the LP’s closing track is a tender nod to the singer’s West Virginia roots. Other notable cuts on the new record include the Wood Brothers’ “Chocolate on My Tongue,” an unadorned but effective version of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” a buoyant, spiritual take on Joan Osborne’s “St. Teresa,” the hopeful “This Love Will Carry,” featuring harmony vocals by the song’s writer, Scottish folk musician Dougie MacLean, and “Holy Now,” written by Peter Mayer.
Pretty Bird will be available September 7th on Mattea’s own Captain Potato label.