After Almost Losing Control of Her Voice, Kathy Mattea Returns With 'Pretty Bird'

Reto Sterchi
Kathy Mattea

Kathy Mattea's newest album, Pretty Bird, is the first set in six years from the two-time CMA Female Vocalist of the Year winner, and it showcases a new and refreshed attitude toward her voice. After performing for well over three decades, she was beginning to lose control of her vocals – a prospect that terrified her.

"It was emotionally really difficult because, when I felt my voice start to change, I thought, 'Okay, so is this be beginning of the end? Or is this just a change?' I realized that in order to do what I was going to need to do, I was going to have to live with that question." One thing was for sure – if Mattea couldn't hit the notes properly anymore, she would walk away.

"I thought, 'I can't do that, if I can't really feel like I'm singing, I don't think I can be out there, kind of playing the thing out.'" It was a period that was emotionally trying for the singer.

"The question for me became 'Do you want to know the truth more than you want to not hurt?' Did I want to just walk away because you're scared or do you want to know if you can sing or not still? And I had to sit in that and I thought, you know, if it turns out that my voice is not going to be able to carry me onward, at least I'll have some peace about the thing, you know? I mean, I might have a lot of grief but I'll know, I will know and that will allow me to have some closure and to go on to whatever else I might want to do."

Thankfully, she found her voice. And it happened organically.

"I called my manager and I said, 'I need gigs. I just need to play in front of people.' I went out on the road with just Bill, my guitar player, and I would walk out on stage and just go, you know, 'We're here to play for you because we've been doing this in our living room and the dog doesn't give us enough feedback anymore and so we're going to find out together.' In fact, I said, 'Sometimes I hit Kryptonite and my voice just splats out and if we do, I'll just start all over again.' And I had to do that several times and I'd be like, 'See? That's what I'm talking about,' and then I'd just start singing again."

One of the highlights from the disc is her eloquent take on Mary Gauthier's "Mercy Now," which she says she was drawn to.

"Many people have cut that song. You should hear Mike Ferris' version, it's completely different, totally wailing. A great song is timeless -- it's just an amazing piece of writing. I pulled it out because I was listening to it a lot. As the culture got wackier and crazier and you know, the election happened and polarization happened and everybody is talking and it's all chaotic, I found myself just listening to that song a lot and I thought, wow, I've never sung anything like this and I'll bet I can't sing it, but if I can sing it, I get to live with this song."

Mattea also tackles the old folk ballad "He Moves Through The Fair." When asked why songs of murder and tragedy have such a timeless audience, she said, "I think they're iconic stories. When a song lives like that for so long, the story touches something in people that they've lived themselves and Bill found this song and came up with that arrangement, which is just the two of us. We worked it up at soundchecks. Like one day he just was like, 'I've been thinking about this song,' and he played me this really pretty guitar part and I'm like, 'Oh, that's really nice.'"

Another song of mystery and tragedy included on Pretty Bird is the Bobbie Gentry standard "Ode To Billie Joe," a composition that Mattea says falls under the category of Southern Goth. The puzzle of the song still appeals to her just like in 1967.

"You know she never said what it was that threw off and never, ever said. But she said in an interview, once you get to know a song like that, you start reading up on it and stuff. She said that really for her what the song was about was that the protagonist is sitting at the table, dying and nobody notices. And that the tiny little conversation is going on, 'Pass the biscuits, oh, I'll have another piece of pie, you know, wipe your feet', all of those little things like she's passing them the biscuits and no one is noticing that all the color has gone out of her face. She's going through hell and nobody sees it. And she said that was really the essence of the song for her, was how can her family be so blind?"

It's been quite the career ride for Mattea – one that began as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall Of Fame. 

"I got an education there," she recalls. "I discovered Hank Snow and all these artists. I remember thinking 'Wow, I've really become a country music fan in a deeper way because I really like the Osborne Brothers and I really like Hank Snow and some of the really twangier stuff.' Then I discovered Bob Wills. We had a 10-minute film, it was a news reel, like they used to do before movies, but they also did singing performances that they would run. So it was Gene Autry and Merle Travis and Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers. And I would go on my lunch hour, and I had a key, and I would just go run those films over and over. I'd get a sandwich, and I'd go in the theater and I'd eat my lunch and watch all those films. It was a great time."