Kathy Mattea has always been a bit of a softie. She has a couple of dogs she rescued from the streets of Nashville, and as she talked by phone last week, one of them, Sam, was curled up on the couch next to her.
"He's 8, and he has cancer. He's rallied like a puppy lately, but he's been struggling a little this morning," Mattea said.
Mattea's compassion and social activism has always made her a beloved figure throughout her country music career, which marks a milestone this year. It's been 30 years since she released her first single, "Street Talk." It took her several more singles to break through with "Love at the Five and Dime" in 1986, but she's enjoyed a recording career that has produced 15 studio albums and 41 singles, including the trucking anthem "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses."
"I feel grateful to still be doing this. I haven't gone to sleep, and I'm not slogging through it for the money. I didn't want to be doing ‘Eighteen Wheels' for a paycheck in my 50s," Mattea said. "I feel like there is a wisdom that comes with doing this for so long. I'm better able to connect with the heart of a song."
She credits that connection with a transition she made almost five years ago with the release of "Coal," a rootsy collection of Appalachian mining songs. The Cross Lanes, W.Va., native delved even deeper into her Appalachian roots with her current album, "Calling Me Home." She has been exploring the delicate relationship her home state has with an industry that is a lifeblood for many communities but at times has brought devastation to families - whether it be through the Sago Mine disaster in 2006 or sickness caused by breathing coal dust while earning a living deep underground.
"'Coal' was a life-changing record. When I was growing up, there was Appalachian music around but really no one to teach it to me. When I decided to make that record, it was like going back to my foundation. It was putting my roots down."
Her Appalachian music, along with a vast catalog of commercial hits, will be prominently featured during her concert at Monroe County Community College Friday night.
"In some ways I feel like this has been a natural progression for me. All of my commercial success has been roots based. I'm stepping into a more pure version of it," she said. "Some of these songs I wouldn't have been able to sing in my 20s. I didn't have the gravitas in my voice."
The return to her roots has awakened that inner spark that has kept her churning out music for three decades.
"I'm still doing this because it's fun and challenging. The Appalachian sound made me rethink my singing. This is still juicy to me, and I enjoy going out and bringing that connection to people."
Her visit to Monroe is particularly exciting to her, allowing her to get back on the road after a holiday break, and she'll be telling some stories about her days growing up in West Virginia and taking some requests.
"I feel my job is to take people on a bit of a journey," she said. "Hopefully you will have at least one belly laugh and a tear in your eye if I do my job right."
Kathy Mattea will be in concert Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the La Z Boy Center, Meyer Theater, in Monroe County Community College. Reserved seating is $25 and can be purchased by calling 734-384-4272 or online at monroeccc.edu/theater.
Contact Brian Dugger at: firstname.lastname@example.org.