From Coal To Cool

Any artist worthy of the term evolves and adapts over a career, but it’s really special to watch one grow ever-closer to her essence, when she seems to try less but accomplish more. Something like that is going on with the marvelous Kathy Mattea. She’s paring away and simplifying. And as one might have predicted, the results are luxuriously beautiful and meaningful.

When she was a star, back when country radio still had room for music influence by folk and the blues, Mattea blended the accessible with the cerebral. She helped me fall in love with country music for sure. “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” captivated me even when I was mostly listening to the Grateful Dead and Neil Young. And when I saw her live at Ford’s Theater in Washington DC in about 1993 I became a lifer-fan. Now, some years down the road, Mattea is certainly not repeating herself for casino audiences eager to hear the old faves. She’s working her way back to a sense of the place that shaped her and doing so with the wisdom only years can cultivate. That place is West Virginia, her home state and a vessel of often hard American stories.

This week, as we proudly welcome Kathy Mattea to Music City Roots, she is preparing to release her second album in a row inspired by the story and music of West Virginia. In 2008 she released Coal, an acoustic album produced by Marty Stuart that featured traditional standards and canny finds by the great tribunes of working people and the land that fed them, notably Jean Ritchie and Hazel Dickens. She continues mining this vein (where did that metaphor come from I wonder?) on Sept. 11 with Calling Me Home.

How cool is Kathy? Well she got the remarkable novelist Barbara Kingsolver to write the liner notes, and they’re enough on their own to give you shivers. She concludes: “The particular genius of Kathy Mattea is to call up the touchstones of hope and heartbreak that we all carry in our pockets. Even if these mountains are not yours, the fact is everybody has a home stretch, where you feel a little torn up because no matter which way you’re headed, you are going towards home and also leaving it behind. Believe me, this is the soundtrack for that journey.”

I have not been lucky enough to get hold of the new album yet, but if the integrity and beauty of Coal is any guide, not to mention Kathy’s pretty much error-free artistic career, it should be one of the year’s keepsakes.

You know we love to keep you on your toes at Roots, so we’ll be offering a slate of eclectic talent to round out this week’s show. But I’ll tell you that the one I’m particularly keyed up about is the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra. You may know of my highest and greatest musical passion – those who fuse composed with improvised music and those who find new roles for typecast instruments. Enter Scales, a classical music graduate form Appalachian State and denizen of the Asheville NC music scene, who has built – no kidding – a jazz fusion ensemble around the steel pan or steel drum. What an inspiration to put the glowing, blooming and cutting tone of the steel drum inside a band that will remind you of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters or Weather Report. See this amazing video for a short course in what makes this guy special. Scales identifies Bela Fleck as a core inspiration for his adventurism with the banjo, and indeed you can find Bela collaborators like Futureman and Casey Driessen all involved with Scales’ career. I’m gonna love meeting this guy.

And then we’ll present North Carolina’s great Malcolm Holcombe, in all his magnetic, transcendent glory. You may have caught him on our show or elsewhere before, but if you haven’t, he’s got as much mesmerizing power as the old bluesmen. He always kind of stops the show. Rounding out the bill, hard-traveling populist troubadour John Francis and a collaboration between ultra-experienced band veterans Gibb Droll and Ken Coomer called Eaten By Dinosaurs. We expect to devour that.

See you at the Loveless Barn, where it always feels like going home.

Craig H.

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