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Mattea puts her life into her music

Country star’s songs reflect her own family’s past, emotions

POSTED: May 11, 2011 6:05 p.m.
/For Get Out

Country star Kathy Mattea will perform May 21 at the Holly Theater in Dahlonega. The singer is preparing to release her latest album.

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It’s hard to listen to "Where’ve You Been," the 1989 hit by country singer Kathy Mattea, without shedding a tear.

The song details the relationship between a man and a woman through courtship and marriage, then to the hospital where both are being treated in old age.

When the couple passes each other in the hall, the woman, affected by Alzheimer’s disease, asks her husband of decades, "Where’ve you been? I’ve looked for you forever and a day."

It is, perhaps, one of the saddest country songs ever written. And no one was more affected by the song’s tender words than Mattea herself, since the song was co-written by her husband.

"It’s about his grandparents. It really happened, and he was the guy that wheels the grandfather in to see the grandmother," said Mattea, who will perform May 21 at the Holly Theater in Dahlonega.

"And that’s the last thing his grandmother ever said."

She said she was hesitant when he first played it for her.

"I got really scared, because I knew the story," Mattea said. "He had told me the story when we were dating, and I knew that this was a really big moment in his life.

"I was like, ‘You’re putting that in a song? You’re going to open that up to the world? What if people don’t get it?’"

Mattea went ahead and recorded "Where’ve You Been," but she said it took her awhile to "really hear the song for what it was."

But thousands of other people did.

"It’s just so unusual and so emotional, that you don’t think about DJs playing that during the morning drive," she said. "It (was) just one of those magic moments. It just turned out to be one of those just really, phenomenon songs."

More than 20 years later, Mattea continues to sing songs that she relates to. Her latest album, "Coal," focuses on coal mining, a subject deeply familiar.

"Both my grandfathers were coal miners, and my mom works for the United Mine Workers, and my brother, Mike, sends coal up and down the river on barges," she said.

"It’s been kind of a thread running through my family for a long time."

Both of her parents grew up in coal camps, but Mattea didn’t after her dad left the mines for college.

"I always thought about it as my parents’ story, and not really mine," she said.

When the 2006 Sago Mine disaster occurred in West Virginia, trapping 13 miners for almost two days with only one survivor, Mattea related more to the tragedy than she expected.

"I was really surprised by how much emotion I had about this event, and how I was by myself just crying for people I didn’t know, and a place I had never been.

"Someone reminded me during that time that that’s what music is good for. Music is good for processing emotions you don’t always understand, and singing things that you can’t put into words. And that’s when I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll do a record about coal mining.’"

With the help of bluegrass and country singer Marty Stuart, who produced her album and played with the band on each song, Mattea ended up with an album that encapsulated her family’s history, and her own.

"It was just an amazing journey, and what I got to learn from that is that coal is very much my story as well. I just didn’t see it," she said.

Mattea said she is grateful for her band — fiddle player Eamonn O’Rourke, bass player David Spicher and guitarist Bill Cooley — who will accompany her on her upcoming record.

"They’re all virtuosos, and I feel lucky that they let me play guitar with them," she said.

Mattea said the CD will follow the same vein as "Coal," in some ways.

"I feel like I really went back and picked up a missing piece in my puzzle, musically, on this last record, and that is the music of the place I come from," she said.

"Appalachian music, mountain music, this very old roots music, I want to explore that more, but I don’t want to box it in with a theme."



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