Kathy Mattea is one of those rare performers who is willing to put their money where their mouths are.
What’s more, she was brave enough to risk her career in the process.
Mattea wasn’t the first big-name entertainer to take a stand against AIDS, but she was the first county star to get involved and the country music establishment is not an institution to take such matters lightly.
So when Mattea decided to wear her red AIDS ribbon at the nationally telecast Country Music Association Awards show in 1992, and discovered that the CMA was giving out green ribbons to performers to show solidarity with the environment, she found herself in potentially ticklish situation.
But after a round of discussions, the CMA graciously opted to hand out both green and red ribbons for its performers to wear to the program. For her part, Mattea responded to a newspaper’s challenge to explain her position during the telecast.
She went on to spearhead Nashville’s AIDS project, “Red Hot + Country” and was joined by such artists as Brooks and Dunn, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, Suzy Boguss and Nancy Griffith.
Country musicians are famous for stirring up controversy - Ty Herndon’s brush with the law would be but a footnote in the biographies of many of his famous predecessors - but taking up controversial causes isn’t a part of the normal career arch.
Perhaps it’s because she came from non-traditional roots that Mattea was willing to strike such a gutsy posture. A native West Virginian, she sang in church and local theater production but it was folk music that really caught her attention.
“I was a folkie,” she told an interviewer. “Folk and bluegrass formed my roots. Yes, it was always a quirky, earthy kind of thing. A lot of bluegrass I played, for example, was that music given a progressive treatment, what people call ‘New Grass.’ That’s what Southeastern college kids were listening to then. When the Grateful Dead made a bluegrass album, we knew the whole thing, cover to cover.”
At first, her Nashville producers tried to turn her into a country-pop act.
“I couldn’t make that work,” she has said. “I couldn’t make that believable on record.”
So she held out until she ran into Allen Reynolds, a producer who was also wary of the “Urban Cowboy” trend that had gripped Nashville.
“We found each other,” Mattea said. “Every day in the late afternoon, I’d stop over at his studio … we’d talk a couple of hours, drink a couple of beers. We’d discuss the business, why we made records, just what might ever artistically sustain us for years to come. All of that gave me so much of a sense of belonging. It has formed the core of what has kept me going.”
She and Allen made six albums between 1984 and 1991. Their run produced such hits as “Love At The Five And Dime,” “Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses,” “Where’ve You Been” and “Lonesome Standard Time.”
Mattea moved on to work with other producers, but the flow of hits hasn’t ceased: currently, she last appeared on the charts with “Clown In Your Rodeo” from last year’s “Walking Away A Winner.”
Live, Mattea is a joy, a low-key, genuine performer with a body of material that, song for song, rivals the best anyone has to offer. It’s clear, she’s in it for the long run, career gambles notwithstanding.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Kathy Mattea Location and time: Silver Mountain Amphitheatre, Kellogg, tonight, 7 Tickets: $27.50 and $22.50