Born and raised in West Virginia, Kathy Mattea’s deep connection to her home state and its rich history has fueled her musical vision in recent years. Nominated for a Grammy in the Traditional Folk category for her socially-conscious 2008 album, Coal, Kathy is now set to release her 16th studio album, Calling Me Home, on September 11. The project, which Kathy co-produced with Gary Paczosa (Joey + Rory, The Steep Canyon Rangers), builds on the activist themes of her recent work as she delves further into Appalachian roots music.
Surrounded in warm acoustics, twin fiddle and rambling banjo, Calling Me Home stands on a foundation of traditional bluegrass. The album opener, “A Far Cry,” begins with a high lonesome fiddle as mandolin, guitars and dobro slowly enter the frame. Kathy paints a picture of the beautiful homestead she left behind, singing, That valley was closer to heaven than any place this poor fool’s been, before a more modern ‘newgrass’ chorus plays through hinting at blues and soul. Intentional or not on “A Far Cry,” these themes of a pristine natural world left behind in favor of modernism play heavily into the 11 songs that follow.
Conservationism and environmentalism are a major focus on Calling Me Home. On “The Wood Thrush’s Song,” where dynamic harmonies and lyrical mandolin create an enchanting backdrop, man clears away forests oblivious to the effect of his actions. “The Maple’s Lament” follows a similar theme, where through the point of view of the tree itself, Kathy sings, I was the child of earth and sky, before later adding, But now that I am dead the birds no longer sing in me.
Kathy shifts points of view frequently throughout the project to offer varying perspectives. On “Black Waters,” she takes on the role of a Kentucky farmer, filled with contempt for the mining industry. A once-clean stream is polluted while Kathy repeats, Only black water runs down through my land. However, on “Hello, My Name Is Coal,” powered with a thick drum-kick and a southern-rock feel, she acknowledges what the mining industry provides a town. I’m hope in a hopeless place, she sings while also taking on the issue’s complexities with lines like, Some say I’m a savior, some say death is what I bring.
Themes here are heavy, and Kathy doesn’t shy from any topic. The song “West Virginia Mine Disaster” stands out on the collection as much for the subject matter as it does for her powerful vocal and the music’s dark acoustic melodies. Kathy’s voice also shines on the a cappella title track, “Calling Me Home.” Without any supporting instruments, she’s at her strongest in the story song detailing a dying friend’s last moments. “Agate Hill,” with guitar and mandolin, offers the other side of this conversation as she lovingly lets go when it’s their time.
On Calling Me Home, Kathy takes a long look at the environmental issues affecting West Virginia, and it’s clear where she feels things are headed if something doesn’t change. However, as heard in her voice on “West Virginia, My Home,” Kathy has undying love for her home state as even in her dreams, she’ll, slip away like a bird in flight back to those hills. The issues here are complex, but one thing isn’t; Kathy’s love for her home and passion to do anything she can to help protect it.
Key Tracks – “Calling Me Home,” “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” “Hello, My Name Is Coal,” “West Virginia, My Home”