Guitars and other instruments line the walls of the living room in the Nashville home that singer Kathy Mattea shares with husband-songwriter Jon Venzer. Alongside them are color-splashed works of art, many created by the couple’s close friends. On the fireplace mantel rests an oversized painting by Nashville artist Deborah Denson, a dramatic image that serves as the cover of Mattea’s new album Pretty Bird, released in September.
Sung in a voice that was subjected to significant retraining over the years, the material found on Pretty Bird — including a sultry take on Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” — continues Mattea’s quest for songs that have “a very specific reason for being here, showing me some new point of view about singing along the way.” Those new points of view, however, only emerged after a series of withering setbacks. The singer, who lost her father to cancer in 2003 and her mother to Alzheimer’s disease in 2005, was also losing a childhood friend to brain cancer in 2016. Having endured vocal surgery in the early Nineties, she continued to press on in an effort to record what would be her first album in six years. Pretty Bird, which closes with Mattea’s spine-chilling a cappella rendition of the Hazel Dickens-penned title track, melds the singer’s Appalachian roots with her impeccable song sense, and features tunes from Gentry, Dougie MacLean and Vezner, as well as Mary Gauthier, the Wood Brothers’ Oliver Wood and the late Jesse Winchester.
The native West Virginian, who took a job as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum when she first moved to Nashville, would win back-to-back CMA Female Vocalist of the Year honors in 1989 and 1990, with such songs as “Where’ve You Been,” “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” “Come From the Heart” and “Goin’ Gone,” among her most memorable hits. Mattea’s living room, where she jams weekly with longtime guitarist Bill Cooley, has long been a safe confessional space for the singer, and it was there that for the greater part of an afternoon, she spoke with Rolling Stone Country about a wide range of personal and professional issues, including how she broke through her “dark night of the soul” with newfound strength and resilience.
The issues with your voice go back a long way and you had vocal surgery in 1993. Do you know what caused that at the time?
My mom, at the height of my career, told me I’d changed, and basically did everything but disown me. Not publicly, just when I would come to visit, when I would talk with them. I haven’t really talked about it, but I think now that it was an early sign of Alzheimer’s. She had some other kind of anger issues that got worse as her Alzheimer’s started to become more clear. But it almost killed me and I didn’t know what to do. So I just worked; I just said yes to everything. But I couldn’t sleep and I was stressed out. What happened to my voice happened because I just wasn’t taking care of myself.
How did you get to the point after your recent voice problems where you started working on songs for the new record?
At first, I didn’t think this was going to be a record. The songs were like stepping stones for me to get to know my voice again, in a new way. I thought, “I need to suss out what’s going on with my voice; whether I can come to a place where I like it enough to keep going, where I don’t just feel like it’s always compromised.” To do that I thought I can’t sing the kind of songs that I’ve always sung. It has to be something I would never do. Bill and I, every Thursday we jam here at the house. Sometimes on old songs, new songs, crazy songs no one will ever hear, so that when I’m not on the road as much, if I go through a spell where I’m not out very much, I’m still digging in and looking at the nooks and crannies.
I walked in one day, and I said, “Bill, I don’t think I can sing this song, but I think I might learn something from singing this song, so let’s try it.” It was [the Wood Brothers’] “Chocolate on My Tongue,” the first song on the record. For a long time on that chorus, he’d be like, “Kathy, it sounds great, but you’re a quarter-tone flat every time you hit that note.” I’m like, “I can’t hear it.” Then I’m thinking, “So, is my ear going as well?” Sometimes he would come over and it would not be a good day, and the week before it would have been glorious. I would just sob. I would be angry and crying and frustrated and bewildered and terrified. God bless him, he just sat still and let me wail.
You’ve said that the past few years represented a “dark night of the soul” for you. What was the darkest part for you?
A couple years ago, 2016, was the worst — maybe one of the worst years of my life all the way around. My childhood friend got diagnosed with brain cancer, so we were going back and forth visiting each other. That was a long, slow decline, and a really rough thing. And then this voice thing. A whole bunch of stuff that felt solid to me was just changing all at once. I had this voice teacher that I’ve had since I was 19, and her health was declining. I knew I couldn’t start a new process with her. She wound up passing away two years ago. So I found this teacher, Judy, who sings with Bobby McFerrin and teaches with him. She lives in Minnesota and we Skype voice lessons. It was good to have the voice practice to anchor everything. It was like, “OK, I can’t do anything about Dana’s cancer, but I can practice my voice. I can do something to answer this question.” The hardest part is just hanging with it unresolved until you get clear. With Judy’s help, I went from thinking I kind of had an old Volvo — it’s sturdy and it’s classy, and still runs, but you kind of have to baby it and take care of it — to, I think I might have a vintage Ferrari on my hands. I just don’t know how to drive the thing yet. That was a huge sea change that happened sometime in 2017.
“Ode to Billie Joe” feels like a natural fit for this record because there’s darkness and mystery to it, but it absolutely draws you in. Do you remember when you first heard it?
My mother kept the radio on all the time. We had a little clock radio that lived in the window of the kitchen, on the windowsill above the sink. It was playing all the time. I think it was either there or in the car where I heard it. It stopped you in your tracks. She sort of has that languid thing, like the bossa nova singers. It’s just effortless and easy and Southern and sexy and bluesy, all at the same time. Bill calls it Southern Gothic. I’ve always had an alto voice, but there’s a richness in the low end that was not there when I was younger. I couldn’t have probably done this song when I was young, or it would have lived in a lighter way. But there’s some gravitas to it now. I pulled out the lyrics and we started fooling around with it. It just fell out. Like finding the perfect pair of jeans or something like that.
Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now” was already an incredibly powerful song, but considering where we are as a country, it’s even more poignant now. What has been your own personal experience with the song?
At their best, songs make us feel so not all alone when we’re going through something that’s really hard. They make us feel connected when we’re feeling joy, or whatever we’re feeling. I think I had been aware of the song, but I hadn’t ever really sat down and listened to the whole thing. I always knew about Mary, but that song did not live as a full entity for me. I was visiting with this very interesting man, Parker Palmer, who’s a writer, kind of a guru in higher education. I had done some teaching and someone sent me to a workshop of his. He was one of the first people to publicly write about clinical depression. He went through a really bad time and was telling me they took all of the guns out of the house, everything. His wife was terrified he was not going to be able to take it anymore and be gone one day, by his own hand. He told me, “One of the things that got me through was just listening to ‘Mercy Now,’ over and over. I thought it was time for me to get to know that song then. Through that season, through some mutual friends, I wound up being in the company of Mary a bunch. We sort of developed a little friendship. When things started to unravel culturally, I found myself listening to the song all the time.
Your husband contributed a couple of incredible tunes to this album, including “October Song,” which is quite beautiful but also very sad because it deals with a relationship that has ended. Yet you two have been married since Valentine’s Day 1988, which is actually quite an achievement.
Well, we’re on our third marriage. It just happens to have the same faces as the first and the second marriages. I mean, it has died and resurrected several times. Every time we like look at each other and go, “Is this the end?” We’re like, “No, I don’t want to leave this!” So, we roll up our sleeves and deal with whatever the glitch is. We just hit 30 years, and it’s been the sweetest season of our lives. It’s been really great.