"When I talked to my dad about the record," a laughing Kathy Mattea says about Good News, her recently issued Christmas album, "he told me, `You know, honey, I heard it and then I looked at your mother and said, "Ruth, it'll never sell."'"
Mattea has heard similar remarks throughout her career. In a musical field where conformity has often proven to be the shortest route to success, she has adamantly stuck to her own vision. Because she's based her approach to music on creative criteria rather than commercial calculation, she's frequently seemed like Nashville's odd woman out--as Mattea says, "My label looks at me as the artsy one." Yet somehow she's made it all work. Since 1986 she's earned two gold albums and a pair of female-vocalist-of-the-year awards from the Country Music Association. And even though her father was right about Good News (the album, issued on the Mercury imprint, wasn't exactly a sales smash), it still received a Grammy nomination as best Southern gospel, country gospel or bluegrass recording.
That Mattea has been able to go her own way is testimony to her stubbornness, but it also points to the surprising reverse sexism that has crept into the country music industry over the past several years. In pop and rock music, it's the women who are often forced to adapt themselves to various stereotypes (guitar-slinging vixen, come-hither seductress, wanton Kewpie doll); in country, it's the men. Males breaking into today's country market must satisfy a minimum hunkiness requirement, look good in a Stetson and perform in a clean-scrubbed but sexually provocative fashion. And almost incidentally, they must choose material that makes obviousness and accessibility the number one priority. By contrast, Mattea says, women don't have to jump through as many hoops and are given greater artistic leeway.
"There are a lot more male artists out there than females," she says, "and the standards for men's sales are so high--if you're a male and you go gold, it almost seems like you've failed. So I think that really does affect song selection and the way you make records. But then again, you have somebody like John Anderson, who is not Mr. Hunk but who made the record of his life this time out [Seminole Wind] and had a great comeback. It's those kinds of things that give you hope and make you think that you might have the freedom to be who you are."
Likewise, Mattea's work offers proof that it is possible to toil in the country mainstream without becoming trapped in formula. A native of West Virginia, she was in her mid-twenties by the time her first album on Mercury, Walk the Way the Wind Blows, reached record stores. Because Mattea chooses to record songs written by others rather than penning tunes herself, she initially made her mark thanks to the consistently good taste she exercised in choosing her material, her insistence on arrangements and production that eschewed showboating and structural shortcuts, and her voice--deep and throaty, but cut with purity and sensitivity.
The next two Mattea discs (1987's Untasted Honey and 1989's Willow in the Wind) benefited from sharper focus and her growing confidence as an interpreter, and prepared her for the biggest risk of her career, 1991's Time Passes By. Made following a trip to Scotland, where she reveled in the opportunity to explore her musical roots, the record is barely country at all. Her version of Dougie MacLean's "Ready for the Storm" is a heartfelt excursion into the Celtic tradition, and compositions from songwriters such as Don Henry, Jon Vezner and Pat Alger are presented with hardly a twang. More startling, Mattea's version of the overperformed warhorse "From a Distance," which she coproduced with MacLean and Vezner, is so strong that it allows the listener to hear it with new ears.
Radio programmers were so flummoxed by Time Passes By that Mattea promised herself that she'd try to make her follow-up, 1992's impressive Lonesome Standard Time, more in keeping with the current directions in country music. Mattea admits that she didn't succeed. For in- stance, "Standing Knee Deep in a River (Dying of Thirst)," the first-rate hit single from the album, is an unflinching look at loss and solitude in modern life that borrows heavily from the gospel tradition.
"The funny thing is, I can say, `This time I'm going to make a straight-down-the-middle country record,' and it still comes out off-center," she notes. "I can't help it. It's what we do as artists. You just go out there and you give it your best shot and make something that you get inspired to do and see if people embrace it."
The Christmas album is another example of this methodology. Virtually every song is overtly spiritual, with "Somebody Talkin' About Jesus" sounding as if it was beamed out of a deep-South church service. And unlike holiday discs made by artists who are more interested in perennial royalties than quality, Good News includes not a single familiar hymn or seasonal favorite among its ten selections. "I thought doing the same old songs would be so boring," she says. "It would be like a waste of time. On top of that, I spent a long time looking for original material. And after I found eight new songs that I really loved, I couldn't put on `Frosty the Snowman' as number nine."
Even this early in the new year Mattea is already embroiled in another pair of ambitious projects. The first is a new album, to be titled Walking Away a Winner and set for a late-winter release. As usual, the disc represents a shift of gears--in this case her first excursion into music with a rock edge. "It's not quite heavy metal," she jokes, "but it's more electric-guitar-oriented. We were going for a mid-Seventies sound, that kind of earthy California sound that folkies started going for back then."
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In addition, Mattea is spearheading a project called Red Hot + Country for the Red Hot Organization, whose previous albums--Red Hot + Blue and Red Hot + Dance--featured pop stars such as U2 and k.d. lang donating their services and their profits to the fight against AIDS. Country performers have been notably silent about AIDS in the past, but Mattea hasn't been afraid to take a stand. At a 1992 CMA awards presentation she objected to the decision to replace the red ribbons celebrities have worn to highlight the AIDS crisis with green ribbons meant to symbolize a commitment to the environment. She not only made a red ribbon part of her wardrobe, but spoke from the stage about the importance of the cause, raising some hackles among country conservatives, but raising consciousness in the community at large.
Today, she says, "What I think is that a lot of people were touched by AIDS, but they didn't know how to say anything or to organize. So I'm glad I got the ball rolling." About the prospect of hurting her career by alienating country listeners who suffer from advanced homophobia, she is curt: "Whether they're gay or straight, people with AIDS are human beings who are loved by other human beings. And they're leaving big holes. To say that their life is not as valuable because they're gay is ridiculous. And it's not just gay people dying of this disease. This could have happened to me just as easily as someone else. I've done stupid things in my life and not thought and taken risks, and I think, `Why them and not me?' It was just the hand of fate. So that's why I feel I should say something."
Other country performers are now joining Mattea: The Red Hot + Country disc, expected to go on sale midyear, will also feature Nanci Griffith, Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus, Dolly Parton and five other big-name acts goaded to action. Mattea is excited to hear the finished product. More important, so is her dad.
Kathy Mattea. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, January 25, Union Colony Civic Center, Greeley, $14/$10, 290-