March 23, 2007
“I am exactly where I want to be.”
“I’ve had an interesting career arc,” she says. “And I’ve managed to land in a place that really fits who I am and what I want to do at this point in my life. I have managed to live through stardom without burning out, and feel very clear about how I want to spend my time and energy, musically and personally. It was always my goal to be able to look back from this place. It’s a good feeling.”
In an era of grandstanding artistry and pop celebrities who change with each new trend, Mattea has remained grounded in who she is: a folk-based roots performer and a well-written song’s best friend. She’s let her own instincts be her guide rather taking cues from what other artists are doing.
“If there’s one constant through my career, it’s my connection with songs and songwriters,” she says. “It’s never been so much about me or my style; as it is about telling a story or putting across a mood or a feeling. I’m not a real showy singer. When people hear me, I want them to focus on the song, not the voice that’s singing it. It’s hopefully a more transparent style.”
Her recordings brought attention to such diverse talents as Guy and Susanna Clark, Gillian Welch, Tim O’Brien, Jim Lauderdale, Pat Alger, Don Henry, Fred Koller, Gary Burr, Larry Cordle, Mark Germino, Karen Staley, Steve Key, Craig Bickhardt and her husband, Jon Vezner. She also took the unusual step of looking beyond Nashville for songs, picking memorable tunes from such eclectic sources as Janis Ian, Cheryl Wheeler, Dave Mallett, Julie Gold and bluegrass singer Laurie Lewis. “Songwriters were always the people I knew and hung out with,” she says. “I looked at writers, rather than singers, as my peers.”
She also made unusual yet prescient choices when hiring musicians for her records and her band. She hired many musicians who went on to great acclaim as instrumentalists. The list includes banjoist Bela Fleck, fiddler Mark O’Connor, bassist Edgar Meyer, dobroist Jerry Douglas, dulcimer player David Schnaufer, pianist John Jarvis and guitarists Ray Flacke and Vince Gill (years before he became a household name.)
It all came together to create a one-of-a-kind sound that set Mattea apart from her country music peers. She began to meet and collaborate with a wide range of artists from folk, bluegrass and Celtic backgrounds, and forged a reputation as a thoughtful performer with a healthy growing edge.
“When I was first signed, the record company wanted me to be a country-pop singer,” she says. “But working with Allen Reynolds, we got to experiment and take our time and find out who I was as an artist. I had grown up listening to acoustic music, and the artists I loved most had a folk influence. So it made sense that when I got in touch with my inner folkie, I blossomed and my music started to connect with people.”
She’s won two Grammy awards, two Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year awards and her song “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” was named CMA Single of the Year.
Nonetheless, Mattea made the best of the leverage that success allowed her. Her albums always owned an adventuresome quality, from the rollicking acoustic sounds of Untasted Honey and Lonesome Standard Time to the Celtic influences of Time Passes By and Love Travels to the rockin’ sound of Walking Away a Winner.
In 2000 she released her critically acclaimed The Innocent Years. Her record label had undergone a difficult corporate merger and a lot of turnover on the staff. At the same time, there was tremendous upheaval in the country music industry in general.
After 17 years with Mercury Records, Mattea asked to be released from her contract, and Mattea and her manager plotted their next move. “I had nothing lined up,” she says. “It was a leap of faith.” Continuing along a path away from the Nashville Music Machine she considered small labels, major labels, independent deals, licensing agreements and even starting her own record company.
She ended up signing with Narada Records, which had recently been purchased by Virgin Records. Well known and respected as a jazz, world, and contemporary instrumental music label, Narada gave Mattea the freedom to be unique and to explore new directions with her music. Finally able to follow her creative muse, Mattea let shine her Celtic and folk leanings on the first two albums on the label, 2002’s Roses and Joy for Christmas Day, her first holiday album since 1993’s Grammy®-winner, Good News.
For Mattea, it’s the process as well as the result that’s important. She is delighted with her current situation. She has a five-piece band that inspires and pushes her and she works with people she respects.
“After 20 years, I still look forward to going to work every day, whether it’s in the studio or on the road”, she says with a bright grin. “That’s the barometer for me. My show is still evolving, and my fellow musicians challenge me to evolve as a singer, writer, player and performer. I still feel inspired about music. I am incredibly blessed.”