On Sept. 7 County Music Association award-winning vocalist Kathy Mattea released “Pretty Bird,” her first new album in six years. On Saturday, Oct. 21, traveling in support of her newest album, she arrives in Boothbay Harbor to perform at the historic Opera House.
Her newest album, a sublime acoustic collection including a number of smartly chosen and heartfelt covers, the record marks a new era in Mattea’s 30-plus-year career. Over the past several years her deep, rich singing voice has experienced significant changes that could have put a permanent end to her performing, but after extensive vocal training she has emerged from what she refers to as her “dark night of the soul” with a duskier instrument. That newly trained but still memorable voice, which gave country fans such hits as “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” and “Love at the Five and Dime,” is at the very heart of one of the year’s most affecting LPs.
One of country music’s most successful artists of the past several decades, Mattea, a two-time Grammy winner, approaches her material, even the most mainstream country, with an eclecticism and sense of deeper meaning. Those elements are vibrantly evident on “I Can’t Stand Up Alone,” the first track to premiere from her new album. Written by country-gospel legend Martha Carson in the 1950s, Mattea’s soulful version is a sparkling mélange of those genres, with touches of blues and Appalachian mountain music. The uplifting tune serves as a fitting tribute to singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester, who died in 2014, and whose version inspired this one.
“I’ve always loved [his] version of this song,” Mattea says. “I saw him at [Nashville’s] old Exit/In when I was about 20 years old, and I remember him singing it that night. When he died, I was watching YouTube videos of him out on the road, and remembered this. We kept trying to find a way to make it work for us in our live show, and Bill Cooley came up with this cool guitar lick as a backdrop. He was thinking of a kind of Little Feat funky soul style, but by the time we finished it in the studio with Tim, it had gone full tilt Jug Band. I love it, and have had so much fun singing it live – especially when I can have a bunch of backup singers!”
Mattea’s always impeccable taste for fellow artists and writers is once again evident on Pretty Bird, with the sorrowful title cut coming from iconic bluegrass singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens. Performed a cappella, the LP’s closing track is a tender nod to the singer’s West Virginia roots. Other notable cuts on the new record include the Wood Brothers’ “Chocolate on My Tongue,” an unadorned but effective version of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” a buoyant, spiritual take on Joan Osborne’s “St. Teresa,” the hopeful “This Love Will Carry,” featuring harmony vocals by the song’s writer, Scottish folk musician Dougie MacLean, and “Holy Now,” written by Peter Mayer.
Copies of the album will be for sale at the concert. Advance discounted tickets are $40, and available only directly from the box office at 86 Townsend Ave. or by calling 207-633-5159. Regular tickets are $45 and available online at boothbayoperahouse.com. Doors for seating open at 7 p.m. Mattea goes on stage at 7:30.