Kathy Mattea Strips Away Old Habits on 'Calling Me Home'
Kathy Mattea Strips Away Old Habits on 'Calling Me Home'

"For me, it was stripping off a layer of my habitual way of singing," Mattea tells us. "It was a little bit like being naked"

Kathy Mattea's last album, 2008's "Coal," topped the Bluegrass Albums chart and earned her a Grammy nomination. Her newest Sugar Hill release, "Calling Me Home," is very much in the same vein musically as its' predecessor, but the singer tells Billboard that she feels she took things a step further with the new collection.

"It's so interesting how things unfold," she says. "I had made 'Coal' because of the big mine disaster, but what had happened to me was I realized that music that was attached to where I'm from was like a missing link for me. I had some influence, but nobody to really teach me or help me or help me go deeply into it, so it was like going back and picking up a missing piece late in your life. It was a revelation to me for a lot of reasons. It changed the way I thought about my own family's story and my own life. My voice is more mature now, and wrapped around these heavy-duty songs in a different way. I just got started down a path, and made me want to explore the music of Appalachia even more."

One song that is very special to the singer is "Hello, My Name Is Coal." She says of the song that "I made this album that was all about coal mining, and all the songs that were written about it over the decades. There were a lot of difficult subjects in it - working people who didn't have a lot of choices or power. There's a lot of conversation about coal these days, and what I loved about the song that Larry Cordle wrote is that it talks about both sides. It doesn't take a stand, but it says 'Look, I fueled the industrial revolution, and now there's all these other complications.' What I love about it is that I think it's difficult today for us to have a nuanced conversation about difficult subjects. This song addresses that beautifully."

Mattea says that making the album was a learning experience vocally. "I realized that a lot of these songs weren't written by people who wanted to be rich and famous. They were written by people who were expressing the stuff of their lives. There's a certain bit of rawness to it that is built into the music. I was a little bit afraid that after all these years of being 'Kathy Mattea' and thinking of myself in a certain way, that it might not sound as authentic. For me, it was stripping off a layer of my habitual way of singing. It was a little bit like being naked, but it's such a gift to be challenged in my fifties as a singer to think beyond what I think I already know about singing."

One of the most poignant tracks on the album is the title track. Mattea shared with Billboard the story of her recording it.

"This song is about the end of someone's life, and being with them while they cross that unknown threshold into the big mystery. The way I got this song was the most amazing story. I was at a gathering where Hazel Dickens was playing. I heard her sing this, then she came to my show. She came up to me and introduced me to Alice Gerrard. Alice hands me a CD of her songs. I kept it on my desk until I was ready to do the next record, and when I pulled it out, this was the first song that I heard. It was so good. In the meantime, there's a sacred harp singer that I became a big fan of named Tim Eriksen. I don't know him, but I kept hearing his voice on this recording. So, I called him out of the blue, and asked him to sing it with me. His performance on this song is a thing of wonder, and I feel really lucky to have gotten him to sing on it."

Other harmony singers on the disc include Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, and Emmylou Harris.