One of country music’s most beloved and respected artists looks back to the roots of her raisin’ with a challenging yet oddly comforting new project. Infused with the spirit and sound of warm, heart-tugging bluegrass, Coal finds the estimable Kathy Mattea continuing to stretch the staid boundaries of her creativity in search of a rich, resonant truth. Devastated by the recent rash of fatal mining disasters, and haunted by her own West Virginian upbringing (as the child from a significant lineage of black-lunged, sunken-cheeked coal miners), Mattea channels her own conflicted emotions and her own honey-sweet voice into eleven traditional dirges and spirituals.

By no means is Coal a happy-go-lucky affair — believe it, this record is about thirty-five miles of bad road and a lifetime removed from “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” Mattea’s 1988 breakout smash — but the album is undeniably compelling, and from a woman whose artistry has been essential listening for all twenty-five years of its existence, it’s a vital triumph.

A always insists that he detests country music with a purple passion, yet whenever I expose him to the best of the genre — don’t make me name-check Sugarland yet again! — he takes to it instantly. Every aiming to expand his musical boundaries (or, perhaps, just ever a glutton for punishment), let’s once more test A’s tolerance for a music style he continues to find alien. Mattea’s style was never stringently country — a fact that would eventually land her in trouble with the traditional radio programmers who would come to resent the pop-inflected invasion of the early ’90s — but in her prime, she was as consistent a hitmaker as existed in Nashville. And herewith, a fond look back at the highlights of a stunning string of smashes:

1. “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” (from Untasted Honey) — Kathy Mattea - The Definitive Collection - Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses — the sweetly simple blockbuster that propelled Mattea into country’s upper crust. Soild proof that songs need not be excessive to be exquisite.

2. “Listen to the Radio” (from Lonesome Standard Time) — Kathy Mattea - Lonesome Standard Time - Listen to the Radio — one of a pair of superlative Nanci Griffith covers (the other being a brilliant reading of “Love at the Five and Dime,” featuring a note-perfect harmony vocal from the legendary Don Williams) which helped Mattea make a name for herself in her career’s early days

3. “Standing Knee Deep in a River (Dying of Thirst)” (from Lonesome Standard Time) — Kathy Mattea - The Definitive Collection - Standing Knee Deep In a River (Dying of Thirst) — a moving rumination on the fleeting, materialistic nature of life, with a flawlessly restrained vocal performance from a never-better Mattea.

4. “Asking Us to Dance” (from Time Passes By) — Kathy Mattea - Time Passes By - Asking Us to Dance — a painfully gorgeous love song (accompanied by a strikingly serene music video that totally makes you wanna waltz in the rain) from 1991 helps Mattea kick off the second phase of her career in high style.

5. “Where’ve You Been” (from Willow in the Wind) — Kathy Mattea - The Definitive Collection - Where've You Been — by a long shot, this song — a devastating testament to love and its wrenching power to overwrite human foibles — wasn’t her biggest hit. Regardless, it’s the one everyone remembers. If you’re not weeping buckets by the end of verse three, neither are you breathing, in all likelihood.

6. “455 Rocket” (from Love Travels) — Kathy Mattea - The Definitive Collection - 455 Rocketnobody at stodgy ol’ country radio expected Mattea to blow back from a three-year hiatus sounding like this. Vamping it up like Shania could only pretend to, this fun, flirty smash — the videoclip for which won the Country Music Association’s Video of the Year award in 1997 — would become Mattea’s final top twenty single.

7. “The Trouble with Angels” (from The Innocent Years) — Kathy Mattea - The Innocent Years - Trouble With Angels — a giddy, joyous cover of a Juice Newton classic makes Mattea’s major-label farewell one of her strongest tracks.

3 responses to “stars just waitin’ to fall for any wish”

  1. the buzz from Chip:

    Oh wow, I hadn’t thought about “Standing Knee Deep” in aaaaaaaages. Going to download it now.

  2. the buzz from A.:

    “Oh boy, another country music playlist!” I thought to myself when I saw this post. (As you may recall, I once declared that I dislike country music, and while this is no longer the case, I am still somewhat, well, cautious, with it.) However, there is one absolute winner on that list, and it is definitely country — “Listen to the Radio.”

    The best part of that song is the refrain: “‘Cause when you can’t find a friend / You’ve still got the radio.” Whether it’s the radio or soap operas or French novels or video games or painting or mathematics or Sudoku puzzles or whatever it is, we do need that something when we can’t find a friend.

    Other picks from the playlist: “The Trouble with Angels,” “Standing Knee Deep in a River (Dying of Thirst),” and “Asking Us to Dance.”

  3. the buzz from brandon:

    I’m telling you, I was dead certain that he’d fall madly in love with “455 Rocket”! Certain!