Connections with people, not only through music but in person, helps Kathy Mattea find confidence and comfort in dealing with life’s curve balls.
The songstress, known for lending her voice to country, folk, bluegrass and gospel, will headline the 15th annual “An Evening of Hope” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Florence Little Theatre. The benefit is for McLeod Health’s Center for Cancer Treatment and Research in Florence, which is part of a health system that includes hospitals McLeod Seacoast in Little River and McLeod Loris, and Mattea will perform “Walking with My Dad,” a collection of songs and stories from her family’s journey amid cancer, with guitarist Bill Cooley.
Calling Monday from home in Nashville, Tenn., Mattea finds herself “really lucky” when looking back and opening her heart for others, “because my dad walked straight through this” with such family support.
“It was an incredibly rich experience for all of us,” she said. “I came out of that with so many gifts, so many trying moments that have stuck with me … lessons that I really didn’t know at the time, until I reflect back on them. That’s part of what I can bring after the fact, the stories of what was important about those moments. …
“My goal is to be able to remind people there are gifts, even if we can’t see them in the moment.”
Mattea said being asked to join in this McLeod event marks “an honor” for her, especially because she wants everyone coping with cancer in their lives to know “they’re never alone.”
For everyone back home
On her most recent CD, “Calling Me Home,” from 2012 on the Sugar Hill label, Mattea pays tribute to her West Virginia homeland. She views “this Appalachian music” as an immense influence “for everything I ever sang.”
“I feel like it’s singing not just for me,” she said, “but for all of the people where I’m from.”
Though the songs “are so simple,” Mattea said, “I didn’t think they would keep teaching me so much. … One lesson is you can get out of the way and let the story tell itself.”
Having finally reached country success in the later 1980s into the ’90s, among female colleagues such as Patty Loveless, Reba McEntire and K.T. Oslin, Mattea stays grateful for her timing in that era.
“It felt like a real renaissance,” she said, remembering a period with “lots of music on television. … I got in at the end of the old school.”
Mattea had a hit parade before progressing to other, deeper music projects. Asked if a singer-songwriter then reaches a moment, concluding that longing for more hit singles no longer takes the focus, and shifts instead to finding new avenues of expression, Mattea said for her, it wasn’t that defined.
“It’s sort of an evolution,” she said. “I think it deepens your center as an artist, and what drives you and what feeds you. … At some point, I realized I wasn’t going to be happy if I staked my claim in the charts. I wanted to learn about more kinds of music and keep turning over rocks.”
Such exploration after success with such titles as “Train of Memories,” “Goin’ Gone,” “Life as We Knew It” and “Where’ve You Been” — which was co-written by her husband, Jon Vezner — led Mattea to find “the roots” of folk music. That included delving into Celtic and Scottish styles, “and I can say that only looking backward.”
Collaborating on new projects
Mattea spoke of getting ready for a Christmas tour this year, which “will take up some time and energy,” and with adding harmonies on other singers’ work of late, she continues work on other “collaborative” projects in the studio. After the benefit in Florence next week, Mattea’s also eager to visit her brother and his wife in North Carolina since their move from West Virginia.
Fans still open up to Mattea their memories from hits that helped her earn the Country Music Association Award for Female Artist Vocalist of the Year in 1989 and ’90.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “That’s what music does: It closes the circle for people.”
Mattea said she appreciates hearing “how songs marked somebody else’s life, and how you started something that marks their life.’
“It’s a lovely full-circle thing,” she said.
Just in the past couple of weeks, Mattea has encountered more connections at concerts. One woman introduced her husband, about to retire from a truck-driving career, another outlet for the meaning of Mattea’s recording of “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses.” Performing in Blacksburg, Va., last weekend, Mattea also met a Virginia Tech student.
Mattea recounted her words: “I’ve met you every three years since I was 9 years old, and I was named after one of your songs.”
“There are stories and stories,” Mattea said. “It’s why we share this connection.”