In 2008, Kathy Mattea quietly released an album she figured would be a side project, yet another stylistic departure in an eclectic country-music career full of them. She was wrong. “Coal’’ ended up setting Mattea on an intense personal journey to discover her Appalachian roots, a soul-searching process that has continued to this day.
“That album changed my life. It was a revelation, such an unexpected gift,’’ Mattea, who performs at Sanders Theatre tomorrow night, says recently from her home in Tennessee. “The chance to step through a door into a new point of view on singing, music, your own people, and the music of your people - that is such a rare opportunity when you’ve been singing as long as I have.’’
Produced by Marty Stuart, “Coal’’ was deceptively bare-bones: an acoustic song cycle about the history and importance of coal mining and its devastating effects on the communities that have depended on it.
Mattea’s vision of mining didn’t espouse the proud sentiments of, say, Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.’’ Her portrait was far bleaker. Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Coal Tattoo’’ and Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive’’ reflected its brutal physical realities. The showstopper, the moment that leveled both the performer and anyone who heard it, was Mattea’s stirring, a cappella rendition of Hazel Dickens’s “Black Lung.’’
Mattea, who’s 52, had always been a heartfelt singer, but “Coal’’ demanded more of her.
“I sang those songs in a different way and from a different place, and that was my challenge,’’ she says. “This music was not about being Kathy Mattea singing a song.’’ The potent storytelling required Mattea to strip herself out of the songs and let them speak directly to the audience, an approach she still employs when performing the album backed by a small acoustic band.
Born and raised in West Virginia, Mattea had been steeped in mining culture - various family members had been miners - and yet Mattea wasn’t overly familiar with the canon of songs about it.
“There was nobody when I was growing up to teach me this music, so I really dove into it and found a world that had been in front of my face but I hadn’t really explored,’’ Mattea says. “I really wanted to sing about what it’s like to be there. The best way that I can put it is that I’m not just from West Virginia; I run my fingers through her hair. I have an intimate relationship with what the sense of place is there.’’
Even for an artist prone to rabbit holes, “Coal’’ was a curveball. In addition to her early years in commercial country music - which, starting in the late 1980s, spawned hits such as “Love at the Five & Dime,’’ “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,’’ and “Come From the Heart’’ - Mattea’s discography is dotted with detours into bluegrass, Celtic, and folk.
The reception for “Coal’’ was resounding, both critically and personally. It garnered a Grammy nomination for best traditional folk album, and Mattea is now working on its follow-up, due for release in late summer. She says “Calling Me Home,’’ which features songs such as Jean Ritchie’s “Now Is the Cool of the Day,’’ is a deeper exploration of where she comes from. Mattea says she follows her muse wherever it leads her, even when she’s clueless about the destination.
“Someone said to me one time, ‘You know, you can drive from Maine to San Diego, and you can get there in a car with headlights that only shine 30 feet in front of you.’ That’s how it feels: It feels like I’m going, but I can’t really see the specifics,’’ Mattea says. “Mostly what I think I’ve learned after decades of doing this, is if I have the courage to stay in touch with what really moves me, that is my best chance for moving other people and staying connected with an audience.’’
Mattea has no regrets, either.
“I could have made some different choices along the way, maybe made more money, but I don’t know that I’d be happier,’’ she says. “My decision, to put it bluntly, was: Do I want to be Reba McEntire or Emmylou Harris? Reba has an amazing career, and I think she’s really happy with it. But I knew that I was a different kind of person.’’
And Mattea has stayed true to that realization ever since.
“I remember saying to my manager when I first started out, ‘I just hope when I’m in my 50s, I’m still able to make music I love and have an audience that’s big enough to allow me to keep doing it, and that I keep growing,’’ she says. “I really feel like that’s what I’m doing. What else is there, really?’’James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.