"I'm from West 'by-God' Virginia," says the opening line of Larry Cordle and Jenee Fleenor's brilliant first-person narrative, "Hello, My Name Is Coal," and when Kathy Mattea sings it, as she does on Calling Me Home, her brand-new release on Sugar Hill Records, it's the simple truth. The song is one of several that revolve around coal and the people who work in it, but while the album represents an extension of Coal, the Grammy-nominated, Marty Stuart-produced project that preceded it, the title of this one's a tip-off that it deals with a broader range of subjects.
Still, anyone who grew up in West Virginia and is making an album with a title like Calling Me Home is going to have to deal, one way or another, with what still forms the core of the state's economy — not to mention its impact on the environment — and that helps make "Hello, My Name Is Coal" part of the album's center.
"What I love about that song," Mattea says, "is that it doesn't take any sides. It sort of lays out the dilemma as it is in Appalachia. That's what I fell in love with, because it's so hard to make a point that subtle. To be able to write a song that opens up a conversation that has any kind of nuance at all to it, that's brilliant.
"A lot of my cousins still live three or four houses away from where my mom and all her sisters were born, in the same little coal town, even though the mine's long since shut down. There's a real tight-knit culture there that's being lost in a lot of other places, and so because there's no economic diversity, if you want to stick with your family and in the place that you're from, you don't have much choice. And part of what I wanted to express on this record is a way that people are in Appalachia, a way that people live very close to the land. My dad knew every inch of the mountains around where he grew up, but people don't know their place like that in very many places anymore.
"So I opened a door with Coal, where I found this music that has been around me all my life — that completely changed the way I think about my own history, the way I see my family, the story of where I'm from. It was like coming back full circle. And I didn't want to just walk away from that. But Coal was boxed in by a theme."
Making Calling Me Home, says Mattea, was a more open-ended — and in some ways, more difficult — process. "I started collecting songs," recalls Mattea, "and that was so much fun. But I wasn't sure that there was a record there. And I work better in collaboration, so I just called Gary Paczosa one day and said, 'Hey, I need some advice.' I didn't know him well, but I knew that he knew this kind of music, and I'd had enough dealings with him to feel like he would be straight with me, which was what I really needed."
As it turned out, Paczosa not only encouraged Mattea to press ahead, but also wound up co-producing the album and signing her to Sugar Hill. Mattea spent some time working up arrangements with her longtime guitarist, Bill Cooley, and then headed into the studio with Paczosa and a crew that included Cooley, bassist Byron House, percussionist Jim Brock and studio wizards Stuart Duncan and Bryan Sutton, who share 11 different instrumental credits between them.
The result is a set that compellingly drills down into the singer's heritage through songs that come from a nifty set of sources — not only fellow West Virginian Jean Ritchie, but writers and artists like Laurie Lewis and bluegrass/old-time pioneer Alice Gerrard, whose routes to Appalachian music ran in a variety of directions — and are put together with a sure touch. "The way this came together in the studio," Mattea says, "it felt to me like someone was watching out for us. I was in tears by the end of the third day."
But while Mattea's bringing a mostly different set of musicians to the stage as she introduces the album's songs in a live setting this month, she's confident that the album's spirit will come through loud and clear.
"I think that if we're trying to recreate something that happened in the studio, what we're really trying to do is to recreate the spirit of it," Mattea explains. "I don't have all the same musicians, but the musicians I have on the road are brilliant, so I need to let them be themselves. It's like we're having a little conversation with the track we have, and with Bill's experience with it, and with mine, and then with what everybody else brings. So it's an organic thing."