Years ago, after performing during an afternoon show that also featured a performance by legendary crooner Tony Bennett, country singer Kathy Mattea found herself navigating a post-event cocktail party for VIPs, something she freely admits she’s not very good at.
Plotting her escape, she spotted Bennett standing by a doorway by himself, looking just as uncomfortable as she felt. Mattea, who performs Friday, Jan. 18, at Viroqua’s Temple Theatre, quickly made her way through the crowd to the singer, whose once-crumbling career had gone through an unlikely U-turn as he entered his 70s, skyrocketing via his MTV performances alongside such favorites of younger audiences as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Elvis Costello and k.d. lang.
Bennett sounded as good as ever, Mattea thought, and he had found a way to connect with listeners less than half his age while performing standards written by the likes of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Duke Ellington — all heavyweights, to be sure, but hardly the kind of songwriters likely to attract the attention of a generation still immersed in rock ‘n’ roll and just beginning to wake up to the sounds of hip-hop. Amazingly, Bennett had even emerged as the unlikely winner of the 1995 Grammy award for Album of the Year for his disc “MTV Unplugged.”
Mattea — who had enjoyed a good run of success herself in Nashville in the late 1980s and early 1990s, charting four No. 1 country hits on the Billboard charts and winning a pair of Grammys — was fascinated. She was also intent on seizing the moment to learn something valuable.
“I thought, ‘You’ve got Tony Bennett, and no one else is here,’” Mattea said, laughing and recalling the moment during a telephone conversation from her Nashville home. “So I walked up to him, and I said, ‘I’ve got a question for you. I heard you sing tonight, and I know how old you are. How did you do it?’”
Only afterward did Mattea realize how pointed her question probably sounded and how, she was, in effect, calling one of the legendary figures in American music an old man to his face.
But if Bennett was offended by her question, he never showed it, Mattea said. Instead, he responded with a gracious smile and explained how he had put his ego aside a few years earlier and worked with a vocal coach to retrain his once-robust voice that had begun to fray with age.
“I filed that away,” said Mattea, whose own career was still going well at the time as she rode the lingering success of her hits “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” “Going, Gone,” “Come From the Heart” and “Burnin’ Old Memories.” Mattea was part of a group of strong-willed, esteemed female artists who had all but taken over the country charts, a group that included Suzy Bogguss, Patty Loveless, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Trisha Yearwood, Alison Krauss, Rosanne Cash and Martina McBride.
But as the years went by, and Mattea entered her 50s, she found her once-compelling voice beginning to betray her, similar to Bennett’s situation. Fearing that erosion was irreversible, she began to ask herself how much longer she could go on performing at a level that was acceptable to her, secretly wondering if perhaps she already had reached that point.
“It felt tight and flat,” Mattea said of her voice, expressing her alarm.
She recognized that a decline in her vocal ability was a natural factor of aging, but she was determined to find out, as Bennett had done, if there was something she could do to recapture some of the magic she had lost.
“So I took six months off the road and practiced every day, diving into getting to know my voice again,” said Mattea.
That process included getting together with her longtime guitarist, Bill Cooley, every Thursday for eight hours at her home. Mattea worked not only on honing her vocal technique, but on challenging herself with styles of music that were far afield from the country and folk music that had defined her career to that point.
Jazz, blues, soul, big band standards — it didn’t matter. If Mattea found a tune interesting and it pushed her to try things with her voice she hadn’t explored before, it was worth working on. Besides, she figured, it wasn’t as if anyone was ever going to hear her perform these songs, anyway.
“I don’t care what they are, I just need to test drive these things,” Mattea said, describing her philosophy.
That approach had the desired effect. Not only did Mattea develop an affinity for many of those songs and wind up incorporating them into her new set list, she said she learned new vocal techniques that, in some ways, have made her a better singer than ever.
Mattea said her voice might not sound much different now to the average listener, but the change feels striking to her.
“It was as much about unlearning bad habits as learning good ones — and not freaking out because my voice was changing,” she said. “My low end is much richer than it used to be.”
Mattea certainly didn’t get there overnight. Her sessions with Cooley tended to be hit and miss, with plenty of setbacks for every victory. Mattea struggled emotionally with the difficulty of what she was trying to do.
“There were days when it was glorious, and days when it was flat,” she said. “On those days, I’d cry for 30 minutes at a time. But Bill knows my voice as well as I do, and there were days when I’d be singing, and his head would just snap (in response to something Mattea was singing).”
The uncomfortable, demanding nature of that process certainly wasn’t something she could have gone through with just anybody, she acknowledged. She and Cooley have been friends since the early days of Mattea’s career, and she trusted him the way she trusted few other people she’s worked with.
“He’s played with me for 26 years,” she said. “He auditioned for my band in 1990, and he left an artist bigger than me to come play with me. He’s gentle with me, but he’s not afraid to call me out when I’m sloppy. He’s quietly worked beside me through this whole journey.”
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At times during her weekly sessions with Cooley, Mattea said the two would end a song and sit in silence for several moments while staring at each other, processing what they had just heard. That kind of wordless exchange is the product of years spent learning each other’s habits and reactions, she said.
“There is a musical conversation that’s been going on between us for 25 years,” she said. “So it was the most natural thing.”
That chemistry Mattea and Cooley cooked up over those six months didn’t immediately translate to their performances as a duo on the road — “I had to take it out on the road before I was ready,” she said — but over the ensuing year, they have figured out how to bring it with them on a nightly basis.
“It’s been really unexpectedly fresh for me,” Mattea said of performing with such sparse accompaniment, as opposed to a large band as she has for most of her career. “More than I feel like something is missing, it feels like something has come to life without a band.”
For Mattea, developing a sense of intimacy with the audience is a key component. That’s an element of her career she said she’s always prioritized, even when she was atop the country charts and was performing in large arenas.
“I’ve always kind of had that,” she said. “I’m not wired in a way I can go sing at people. I’ve always had a more intimate approach. I’ve just been able to make a room feel smaller than it is, not bigger than it is.”
That has as much to do with Mattea’s gift for communicating with her audiences between songs as during them. Storytelling — a gift she learned while growing up in a blue-collar household in West Virginia’s coal-mining country — has always been part of her performance tool kit.
Several years ago, she began to put that gift for public speaking to work, as well. Fresh on the heels of a mine disaster near her West Virginia hometown that killed several workers, Mattea found herself deeply moved by what she saw and learned while attending a performance of former Vice President Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” presentation on climate change. She signed up with Gore’s organization to learn to present the show herself, then decided to take things one step further by putting together a touring presentation that combines environmental advocacy with her stories of growing up in a coal-mining community.
She has gone on to deliver “My Coal Journey” many times over the past several years while also paying tribute with an entire album — 2006’s “Coal” — to her Appalachian culture and family mining heritage.
“I realized, ‘Oh, my God, if I’m going to be talking about climate change, I’m going to be talking about coal,’” Mattea said. “That mine disaster, which was the first one like that in a long time, had so much grief about it, and I found I could channel my grief through a recording. Suddenly, that became the running theme of everything I was doing.”
Mattea enjoyed her presentations so much, she would go on to craft two more speaking programs — “The Arts: Remembering Who We Are” and “Finding Your Path” — that she took on the road, as well. Both deal with her own experiences as an artist and what an important contribution the arts make to society.
“It’s different, but it’s not as different as I thought it would be,” Mattea said of her speaking engagements as opposed to her concerts. “That’s mostly because I’ve always talked to my audiences. ... The feeling of the engagement feels the same. It’s a fun challenge.”
It’s been some time since Mattea delivered her “My Coal Journey” presentation, and even though some of the songs from “Coal” remain in her set list, one thing she doesn’t do is incorporate any elements from that presentation into her concerts.
“I let the music do the talking,” she said. “And a lot of what I found was if I sing a song from 40 or 50 years ago, it talks about the same tension in these issues. I don’t have to say a word. The song does it for me. Everything is exactly the same as it was where I grew up.”
Those kinds of darker themes didn’t play as big a role in Mattea’s songs during the height of her career. But she and her female cohorts — along with such maverick male artists as Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle — from that era still represented a strong breath of fresh air as Nashville was emerging from its wretched “Urban Cowboy” phase, changing long-held perceptions about the limits of country music. Mattea was just one of several female country artists who were bucking the old-boy network on Music Row, writing and performing literate, thoughtful and still commercially successful songs that came from a perspective Nashville power brokers, and radio listeners, weren’t used to hearing.
Mattea said things were happening so quickly for her at that point, there was no opportunity to appreciate that situation for how special it was — one that has long since gone by the wayside after country music merged with sugary pop and began its long, hard slog through its interminable, creatively bereft bro country phase.
“It came late. It came much later,” Mattea said, fighting back tears and reflecting on her eventual realization that she had been in the middle of something exceptional. “But I feel really moved when you say that because I know I was lucky. It was a sweet time. I mean, Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle and Nanci Griffith were all getting played on the radio then. Steve Earle called it ‘The Great Credibility Scare of the late ‘80s.’
“It felt like winning the lottery,” she continued. “It just felt like the best adventure in the world.”
Even though Mattea’s recordings and concert ticket sales don’t match the heights she achieved then, it’s an adventure that continues. An unwillingness to simply play out the string served as her motivation for learning a new way to sing and to find new material that inspired her.
She carefully avoided naming names, but Mattea said she’s seen too many once-great artists take the easy road in recent years.
“I grieve for those old voices,” she said, describing how she recently attended a concert by a Nashville legend on a farewell tour whose inability to carry a tune the way he or she once did was heartbreaking to witness. “This artist had barely any voice left, but there was obviously still a great deal of love between artist and audience over those songs.
“I won’t be doing that,” she said. “I want to be Tony Bennett — at least, my version of that. I still feel like my voice is my thing, not a shrine to my old voice.”