THE LAST FEW years have been rough for singer Kathy Mattea.
In 2003, her father died after a long struggle with cancer, and in August, her mother passed away after battling Alzheimer's for more than a decade. Mattea also separated from her husband, songwriter Jon Vezner, whose own parents were facing deteriorating health issues.
On the day we catch up with her in Nashville, Mattea is at a hospital, visiting a friend who has recently undergone a hysterectomy.
"I'm in an empty room filled with unused hospital beds and furniture," Mattea says, and one has the feeling it was an all-too familiar setting.
There's no way such experiences couldn't affect Mattea, but her new album, "Right Out of Nowhere," is less about loss than learning, less about dying than living. In the title track, Mattea sings, "Right out of nowhere / You open your heart / And let go of everything / You're going somewhere / And all you need to know / Is you're free to go." She acknowledges that you can "Hurt Some" and that what may be best is "Loving You, Letting You Go" but also insists that "Love's Not Through With Me Yet." And the thoughtful counsel of such songs as "Live It" and "Give It Away" are delivered with typically passionate assurance.
"Life gets bad, and if you can stand up and not collapse from it, you can be reborn," Mattea says. "There are chances for little resurrections all the way through our lives, but we have to not run away from the pain in order to do so. It's in the staying with it that we get the gift, and that's probably the biggest message on the record.
"If you consider yourself an artist, then it's your job to filter your life experience into your art," Mattea insists. "I've always tried to do that, but I finally had enough distance on that stuff -- my father's death, my separation and reconciliation in my marriage, the process that my mother was nearly at the end of -- to be able to see a little bit of a bigger, wider view of it."
And thus, she adds, "one of the hardest times for me has also been the richest time. I'm just on the other side, I'm just starting to see the changes in who I am as a person and what I'm about and, oh, man, that's the stuff of life right there, and we just miss so much of it because we turn away too soon."
It has been 25 years since Mattea, a coal miner's granddaughter from Cross Lanes, W.Va., arrived in Nashville, a 19-year-old driving a 1975 Volvo station wagon with a mattress on top and a "Nashville or Bust" sign in the window. An academic prodigy (she skipped first grade, graduated high school at 16, studied physics, engineering and chemistry at West Virginia University), Mattea had been immersed in music ever since her mother sought advice from the local school board on how to best nurture her precocious child. Her experiences ranged from pop music at home, folk music at church, classical choral music in school, musicals with local theater groups, jamming with a local bluegrass band in high school.
By the time she got to college, Mattea was playing acoustic music with fellow students on their rental's front porch and drawing increasingly larger crowds. Eventually, she recalls, "the police would block the street off every Friday, putting up barriers for people's safety. At one point they said, 'Guys, there are bars on every corner of this college town, will you please do us a favor and take this to a more appropriate venue? Call yourselves a band and go do this!' "
They did (as Pennsboro), but after two years, Mattea dropped out of school to do some learning.
"I didn't go to Nashville to find a record deal," she explains. "I went to Nashville to find out who I was musically and the stuff I was made of as a person."
Almost immediately, Mattea was in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum -- as a tour guide. By 1981, she'd begun working her way up the ladder of demo and commercial jingle singing. Mattea's majestic voice -- a rich, husky alto/mezzo-soprano with great depth, range and shading -- made her a favorite of songwriters and publishers alike.
That's how she met Vezner while living upstairs in a Music Row house with a publishing company on the ground floor. "I'd come down to pay the rent, and Jon was that newly divorced guy who'd moved to Nashville to go with his passion and wound up with a writing deal," Mattea says. "We'd chat in the hallway, and one day he finally asked me out. We would go on dates, and I'd think, 'I can't wait till we're through with the dating business so we can just get on to being best friends for the rest of our life.' And then there was this day when the light bulb went off. . . . Ohh!"
Mattea and Vezner married on Valentine's Day 1982, a year before she got a deal with Mercury Records. A year after that deal, Mattea was Billboard magazine's Top New Country Artist and on her way to stardom. Between 1986 and 1997, she had 18 Top 10 hits (including four No. 1s) and was named the Country Music Association's female vocalist of the year in 1989 and 1990.
But something was always a bit different about Mattea, not just the strong folk influences evident in her music, but something suggested in one of her chart toppers, 1989's "Come From the Heart," in which she insisted "You've got to sing like you don't need the money / Love like you'll never get hurt / You've got to dance like nobody's watching / It's got to come from the heart if you want it to work."
The proof came in 1991's "Time Passes By," Mattea's first album after her back-to-back CMA honors. Rather than playing it safe and staying within Nashville's accepted parameters, the album reflected time Mattea had spent in Scotland with folk singer Dougie McLean and other Scottish musicians, as well as her bluegrass roots from West Virginia. She was also the first country musician to make a public stand on AIDS at the 1992 telecast of the CMAs, spearheading the release two years later of "Red Hot + Country," Nashville's contribution to the Red Hot Organization to benefit AIDS research.
But in 1994, a year after winning a Grammy for her gospel album, "Good News," Mattea's momentum ground to a halt after she underwent vocal surgery to repair career-threatening injuries to her voice.
"I haven't really talked about this," Mattea says, "but my mom sort of disowned me at the height of my career and I nearly had a nervous breakdown, but my voice blew up instead. I know now that it was the early signs of her Alzheimer's kicking in, but it cut me at the knees when I was the most out there in the public eye."
She adds, "There were years when I thought: 'What if that had never happened, how far could I have gone?' Now I know that it doesn't matter. The circumstances of your life are just window dressing, it's really what you do with them that matters. I think that's how we find ourselves."
One of those cyclical "New Nashvilles" -- this one Garth Brooks-fueled -- had come to the fore by then, and as the '90s wound down, so did Mattea's commercial clout. Still, her albums continued to be critically acclaimed, including 2000's "The Innocent Years," made at a time she was facing the declining health of her father, a supervisor at Monsanto Co. It's a powerful collection of songs about faith, love, family relationships, and in retrospect, a prelude to "Right Out of Nowhere."
"Very much so," Mattea agrees. "It's like being in the tunnel and you can see the headlights in the distance and there's not anything you can do to stop it. There was a sense that there was going to be a dark time and it was not going to be short, that I was going to have to go through some valley in my life and let go of all of the things that I had -- my record deal, the health and youth of my parents, my own youth, and ultimately, the innocence in my marriage. It was going to be a fundamental redefinition of everything."
In fact, Mercury let Mattea out of her contract after 17 years. She signed with Narada, a small label best known for jazz and world music, and it's been a terrific fit. With Mattea no longer subject to the straightjackets of country, she's been able to further explore Celtic/country connections and folk and adult contemporary sounds.
"I felt it was more important for me to be authentic in the time I have, whatever that is, rather than playing a game to keep some bigger thing going," Mattea says. "I find myself here today with a different kind of career than I might have had had I made other choices, but I wouldn't change any of the choices I made from where I sit today, and that's truly the most important thing about it. Your record deal isn't the thing that defines you as good at what you do. The joy doesn't come from having a record contract in a filing cabinet -- the joy comes from the doing of it. If I stay centered in that, then I will always have that. No one can take away the pleasure I have in singing if I don't give it away."
The events of the last few years have brought richer meaning to one of Mattea's finest songs, 1990's "Where've You Been." Written by her husband and Don Henry, it's about a love that has lasted 60 years, from courtship to the threshold of death. A married couple who've never been apart find themselves separated on different floors of a hospital, the wife suffering from Alzheimer's, no longer talking or acknowledging anyone, until one day her ailing husband is wheeled into her room. Through Mattea's aching alto, the wife poignantly asks, "Where've you been, I've looked for you forever and a day / Where've you been, I'm just not myself when you're away."
Those happened to be the last words Vezner's grandmother said to his grandfather. The song, a sparse chamber-pop ballad featuring piano and bowed upright bass, earned Grammys for both Mattea and Vezner.
"To be able to have that song be so personal and to get such a shot at being heard by so many people was such a gift that I think we were just along for the ride at that point," she says about performing "Where've You Been" when it was new. "The idea that this would be replaying in my life now never occurred to me, I never even thought about it. In retrospect, it's like having protective blinders on some level, some kind of denial. [Since then], there have been nights when singing that song has been a transcendent experience."
As for the friend she was visiting, Mattea reports, "She turned the corner yesterday. She's doing great."
KATHY MATTEA -- Appearing Sunday at Maryland Hall in Annapolis.