The title of Kathy Mattea’s final top 10 hit at radio is a bit more on-the-nose than anyone could have predicted upon its release in 1994.
Of course, it’s also fitting, given that the song is a vulnerable yet empowering reflection on the tough parts of everyone’s lives we must endure to face tomorrow with a clear mind. Not to diminish her success, but chart numbers don’t quite tell the full Mattea story; her folk sensibilities and eclectic repertoire she debuted in the ‘80s would later influence similar artists like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Lyle Lovett, and her material was emotional and challenging but still accessible.
As for where she started, Mattea grew up in West Virginia, and originally sang folk music and bluegrass. Her primary influences ranged everywhere from Joni Mitchell to James Taylor. She developed her voice through classical training and church singing, and then joined a bluegrass band in college called Pennsboro in the mid-1970s. The story diverts from there, however, as she fell in love with the bandleader and quit school to move with him to Nashville in 1978. The relationship didn’t work out, but Mattea made it there anyway, taking jobs as a typesetter’s apprentice, a waitress, and a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, coincidentally fueling her musical ambitions along the way. During her breaks, for instance, she would go into the archive room to watch clips of Merle Travis and listen to Jimmie Rodgers.
And on top of all that, Mattea started earning extra money singing on demo tapes for songwriters on Music Row, and built a club act from singing under-the-radar folk songs, novelty hits, and the best of her friends’ compositions. Her hard work paid off when, in 1983, she signed with Mercury Records and ended up recording with producer Allen Reynolds, who offered her advice that stuck with her: “It’s the song, pal. It’s the song. It’s not all the bells and whistles. It’s a good song, sung honestly, and well framed. Don’t ever forget it. When they start telling you it’s about all this other stuff, you just come back to that and you will always be okay.”
Despite her upbringing and background, Mattea wanted first and foremost to be a country singer. Even then, however, her ear for rich songwriting that was deeply rich and complex helped to offer a fresh perspective for country music. She struggled at first at radio, but her cover of Nanci Griffith’s “Love at the Five and Dime” became her first top five hit at radio in 1986 and helped set the wheels in motion for a recording career that would last well into the ‘90s. From that breakthrough hit came other classics, like the truck driver’s love song “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” (the first multi-week No. 1 hit by a female country artist in nine years), or the revitalized Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh-penned “Come from the Heart.” “Where’ve You Been,” written by husband Jon Vezner and friend Don Henry about the former’s grandmother’s dementia and her love with his grandfather, was declared Song of the Year by the Academy of Country Music, and was chosen as Single of the Year by the Country Music Association. Her career, then, gave a spotlight to songs other artists and writers might have considered too left-of-center, but her songs of conscience were, in a word, powerful.
As the decade roared on, though, and the genre found itself less inclined to cling to the more restrained complexities offered by artists like Mattea and the aforementioned artists she influenced, the hits dwindled, as they do. Lonesome Standard Time, released in 1992, failed to spawn a top 10 hit, but still offered meaningful, philosophical songs in “Standing Knee Deep in a River” and “Seeds.” Critics often cite 1994’s Walking Away a Winner as her one final stab at commercial success, and indeed, the collection, along with being her first not to be produced by Allen Reynolds, is also noted for being one of her slickest-sounding to date. And yet it’s on that collection where one will find also find one last true gem of hers to reach a broader audience.
“Walking Away a Winner” is described by writer Bob DiPiero as his way of “whistling past the graveyard” in his attempt to look past a messy break-up and take the high road. It’s a strong idea that was sharpened by co-writer Tom Shapiro, and with lines like “with my pride intact and my vision back” and “walking away from a losing game,” it’s a song some could almost brand as confessional. And yet, oddly enough, “Walking Away a Winner” is one of the rare Mattea cuts to be relentlessly upbeat, as if it’s all to support that cathartic feeling of truly finding a breakthrough – to both get knocked down and to get back up, but also to never go back to that metaphorical place again.
Call it ironic, then, that while on tour to support the record, Mattea found herself not wanting to get out of bed, feeling completely uninspired. After being lent a book by a friend that changed her worldview, she roared back with some of her most critically acclaimed work, even if radio no longer wanted to bite. The more sonically adventurous Love Travels from 1997 foreshadowed what would come (and which, at the very least, garnered a CMA Video of the Year award for “455 Rocket”), but after her final Mercury Records album, The Innocent Years, sold disappointingly and was supported only by a novelty bonus hit in “BFD,” Mattea decided to walk away from the major label scene to focus on the material she wanted to record. The results included, among others, the Celtic-flavored Roses from 2002, the 2005 collection Right Out of Nowhere that reflected her seperation from – and reconciliation with – Vezner and the deaths of her father and mother in 2003 and 2005, respectively, and a collaboration with Marty Stuart in 2008’s Coal, inspired by the Sago mine disaster that’s as much an artistic statement as it is a historical document. As of this writing, her recordings have become less frequent, but I think it’s safe to say that, like a certain song of hers says, she knows where she’s going, and she knows she’ll be all right.