Born Kathleen Alice Mattea on June 21, 1959, in Cross Lanes, WV; daughter of John and Ruth Mattea; married Jon Vezner (a songwriter), 1988. Education: Attended West Virginia University. Addresses: Record company--Narada Productions, 4650 N. Port Washington Rd., Milwaukee, WI 53212. Website--Kathy Mattea Official Website: http://www.mattea.com.
Initially overlooked by the mainstream, Kathy Mattea has turned out some of the finest progressive country, folk, and blues of any performer. Mattea's understated beauty and resonant alto are perfectly suited for acoustic-backed ballads; the singer has made several such songs number-one country hits during her long tenure as a Nashville recording artist. In all, Mattea scored more than 15 top-ten hits during the 1980s and 1990s and earned several awards, including those from the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music, as well as two Grammy Awards.
With several awards under her belt, Mattea entered the 1990s as a versatile, thoughtful, and prominent performer. St. Paul Pioneer Press correspondent Bill Bell noted that the singer "has a knack for pretty, intelligent ballads that express sentiments that seem to go with rock-solid relationships in an uncertain world." Bell praised Mattea for her "deep, throaty, sincere voice and her easy-access image," concluding: "People in the industry have known about [her] for years, but it wasn't until 1988 that she really took off."
Mattea's voice is indeed earthy, a natural gift she has learned to use effectively. She has had little formal vocal training, perfecting her craft instead by singing a variety of folk, bluegrass, blues, and country. Mattea was born and raised in Cross Lanes, West Virginia, the daughter not of a coal miner but of a white-collar supervisor. She was an excellent student, enrolling at West Virginia University (WVU) to study physics and chemistry.
While a student at WVU Mattea began singing with a bluegrass band. Realizing that she preferred performing to physics, she dropped out of college and headed to Nashville, hoping to find work as a folk singer. Mattea was in no way an overnight success, however. To support herself she took a job as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame, a position she learned to appreciate because it taught her poise in front of a crowd. What little singing she could find was usually back-up work and commercial jingles. "In the beginning there were some frustrating years," she told the Chicago Tribune, "when it just seemed like I was standing still. Other people were coming out of nowhere and being talked about, and I was kind of anonymous."
Even after she signed with Mercury Records in 1983 and released her debut album Street Talk, Mattea still struggled. Street Talk "faded pretty quickly," to quote Andrew Vaughan in Who's Who in New Country Music. Its middle-of-the-road sound failed to find an audience; Mattea's future at Mercury might have been brief had she not been invited to open for country star George Strait in many of his road concerts.
Two events saved Mattea's career: her touring with Strait and her decision to reach for a more traditional folk style. In retrospect, she calls the years between 1983 and 1986 "a subtle gift." She told the News and Sun-Sentinel that on the road with Strait, "I was able to learn things without the magnifying glass of the public eye focused on me during my formative years--and learning how to be an artist, not just a singer, takes time." Mattea did take her time and eventually returned to music that properly showcased her sonorous voice. When in 1986 she finally managed to place a song at the top of the country charts--"Love at the Five and Dime"--Mattea was already a seasoned performer. "Looking back on it," Mattea told the Chicago Tribune, "I'm really glad it has happened the way it has, because it feels more solid somehow. I've gotten to the point where I really want to do it the way I want to do it--and if that doesn't work, I'll just go find something else to do."
The late 1980s saw Mattea blossom into a major country entertainer with a string of top-ten hits and best-selling albums. She won Single of the Year awards from the Country Music Association (CMA) and the Academy of Country Music (ACM) for "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses" in 1988 and walked off with the Female Vocalist of the Year award in 1989 from both the CMA and the ACM; she won the award again from the CMA in 1990. No longer an opening act, Mattea was now headlining her shows and becoming known to a wider audience through invitations to prime-time television variety shows. Mattea's other hits during this time included "Walk the Way the Wind Blows," "Untold Stories," "Goin', Gone," and "Battle Hymn of Love."
Mattea does not rest on formula work, no matter how tempting it might be. One of her biggest hits in 1990 was "Where've You Been," a song written by her husband, Jon Vezner. "Where've You Been"--a stark departure from standard country fare--is a plaintive work about a loving husband and wife placed on different floors in a nursing home after 60 happy years of marriage. Mattea called her recording of the song--and its somber but hauntingly beautiful video--a "gamble," though she added: "People usually don't want to rock the boat, ... but I feel it's important to always remember to take a risk if it makes sense."
Like country singers K. T. Oslin and Anne Murray, Mattea is a performer whose appeal is grounded in a down-to-earth, friendly approach that has little to do with appearances. "I don't feel like what I do is a sexual thing," she said. "I don't have big cleavage, and I don't flaunt that. It's just not part of my schtick. I don't even think in terms of gender very much. I mean, I think of myself as a human being first, and I'm singing to other human beings."
News and Sun-Sentinel contributor Holly Gleason allowed that Mattea's voice "has grown stronger from extensive touring." Mattea's is one of the finer vocal instruments in modern country music, especially as she applies it with restraint and never seems to compete with her back-up arrangements. The singer's subject matter is also strong, ranging as it does from genial love ballads to deeper, more challenging efforts. Gleason concluded that the best work of Kathy Mattea "goes far beyond country's drinkin', cheatin' and weepin' songs to celebrate the depth of emotions and the complexities of real lives.... Mattea [makes music] that is anything but obvious, even as it celebrates themes that are so common."
Mattea released several albums during the 1990s, including the platinum-selling A Collection of Hits, Time Passes By, Walking Away a Winner (which generated a number-three hit of the same name), the Grammy Award-winning Christmas album Good News, and Love Travels. Mattea released The Innocent Years in 2000, an album she began writing during her father's battle with cancer. "It was very emotional.... I decided to try to share some of the human experience of growing through adulthood in the songs. When it was finished I just felt really good about it. It fed my soul to make that record," Mattea said in her official website biography.
In addition to her musical pursuits, Mattea became "Nashville's conscience on AIDS," as stated by the Advocate in 1992. After the loss of three friends to the disease during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mattea decided to become an activist. Her first public acknowledgment of her loss and expression of support for the fight against AIDS occurred in 1991 during an appearance on the Country Music Association Awards. Mattea chose to wear three red ribbons in remembrance of her friends, a decision she explained onstage. The statement was not well received by the show's organizers, who had requested that guests wear green ribbons to promote environmental awareness and did not wish Mattea to use the stage as a soapbox. Mattea maintained her commitment to the cause, though, and soon earned support from some of country music's biggest stars for the making of Red Hot + Country, an AIDS benefit album released in 1994. Mattea also belongs to several AIDS-related charitable organizations.
by Anne Janette Johnson
Kathy Mattea's Career
Signed with Mercury Records, released debut album Kathy Mattea, 1983; had first number one single, "Love at the Five and Dime," 1986; subsequent hits include "Walk the Way the Wind Blows," "Untold Stories," "Goin', Gone," and "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses"; released several albums during the 1990s including Time Passes By, Lonesome Standard Time, Walking Away a Winner, the Grammy Award-winning Good News, and Love Travels; released The Innocent Years, 2000; has made numerous live appearances in the United States and abroad; advocate for the fight against AIDS.
Kathy Mattea's Awards
Country Music Association, Single of the Year for "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses," 1988; Academy of Country Music, Single of the Year for "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses," 1988; Academy of Country Music, Song of the Year for "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses," 1988; Academy of Country Music, Top Female Vocalist, 1989; Country Music Association, Female Vocalist of the Year, 1989-90; Academy of Country Music, Song of the Year for "Where've You Been," 1989; Country Music Association, Song of the Year for "Where've You Been," 1989; Grammy Awards, Best Female Country Vocal Performance for "Where've You Been," 1990, and Best Southern Gospel, Country Gospel, or Bluegrass Gospel Album for Good News, 1993.
- Selected discography
- Street Talk , Mercury, 1983.
- From the Heart , Mercury, 1985.
- Walk the Way the Wind Blows , Mercury, 1986.
- Untasted Honey , Mercury, 1987.
- Willow in the Wind , Mercury, 1989.
- A Collection of Hits , Mercury, 1990.
- Time Passes By , Mercury, 1991.
- Lonesome Standard Time , Mercury, 1992.
- Walking Away a Winner , Mercury, 1992.
- Good News , Mercury, 1993.
- Good News Radio Special , Mercury, 1994.
- (Contributor) Maverick (soundtrack), Atlantic, 1994.
- (Contributor) Red Hot + Country , Mercury, 1994.
- Love Travels , Mercury, 1997.
- The Innocent Years , MCA, 2000.
September 30, 2003: Mattea's album, Joy for Christmas Day, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_4/country.jsp, October 1, 2003.
- Vaughan, Andrew, Who's Who in New Country Music, St. Martin's, 1989.
- Advocate, December 15, 1992.
- Chicago Tribune, October 1, 1989.
- News and Sun-Sentinel, March 17, 1989.
- Philadelphia Inquirer, October 8, 1990.
- Southern Living, March 1996.
- St. Paul Pioneer Press, October 9, 1990.
- TV Guide, July 9, 1994.
- Washington Post, May 9, 1990.
- "Kathy Mattea," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 1, 2002).
- Kathy Mattea Official Website, http://www.mattea.com (April 3, 2002).