Singer Mattea Brings Chin-Up Approach to Amphitheatre

Kathy Mattea's enthusiasm about "Willow in the Wind" would suggest that this is her first album rather than her fifth and that her spot between Baillie and the Boys and George Strait on Sunday's Pacific Amphitheatre program is a new challenge.

The 29-year-old singer has, in fact, more than a dozen top-10 singles to her credit. Her best known, "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses," has won her an armful of awards this past month, including both Single Record of the Year and Song of the Year from the Academy of Country Music. As for warming up the concert stage for George Strait, it is a pleasure she knows well.

"George is great," she said. "He's our favorite person to work with on the road. His band and our band are good buds, and his audiences have really embraced us over the last few years."

Mattea's success is the result of a slow, steady ascent since her move to the country music capital from Cross Lanes, Va., a decade ago.

"It's your basic,

ome-to-Nashville-and-flounder-around-until-you-wedge-your-foot-in-the-door story," she said.

A one-time tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Mattea brought her voice--a warm mezzo-soprano with a depth that many women country singers lack--to the attention of Nashville record producers by singing on songwriters' demo tapes.

"I got to know a lot of songs and writers and I got a lot of experience. The reason I got called so much was that I could sing lots of different styles. If you had three songs to demo and they were all different sounding, I could handle all of them in one session. So I developed this real diversity, and it was a learning process to weed out the parts that weren't me when I was making the transition to becoming an artist."

This same diversity makes it a safe bet Mattea will eventually find a broader audience outside the country realm. In the past, she has recorded the songs of such disparate writers as Rodney Crowell, Janis Ian, Elton John and Count Basie, though her folk and bluegrass roots are plain in the largely acoustic arrangements.

"Willow In The Wind," the month-old album she considers her best work, is certainly a varied collection, including the plucky single "Come From the Heart," a Western swing tune called "Burnin' Old Memories" and a quiet ballad entitled "Where've You Been." This last song, like her earlier hits, "Love at the Five and Dime" and "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses," looks in on romance several decades along, when the lovers are middle-aged or senior citizens. Appropriately, it is the work of songwriter Jon Vezner, whom Mattea married on Valentine's Day, 1988.

"I lived in an old house on Music Row and he wrote at the publishing company downstairs," Mattea said. "We met on the steps."

Typical of a latter-day breed of female country singers who take a greater degree of control over their careers than did their predecessors, Mattea attributes her success to maintaining a dogged truth to herself and a businesslike disregard for gender. "I tend to think of myself as a person in country music rather than male or female. I never felt oppressed. I know that there are (barriers) for a lot of other people, but it's not something that I've really come up against. Whatever I've felt like doing, I've just gone after."

Certainly the songs that Mattea chooses are resilient and optimistic in their themes, and free from the fatalistic, sometimes maudlin view many listeners associate with country songs sung by women.

"We go through lots of different experiences in our lives, and you can sing about all of those, but I don't feel like I want to keep going over and over something that has no light at the end of the tunnel, 'cause that's not the way I live my life. I can do a song where somebody isn't totally up, but if there's no hope, the song bores me. I've bottomed out in my life, but I've never gotten to the point where I didn't want to go on," she said.

"What I try to put across is honesty. I try to sing stuff that really moves me and do that as honestly as I can, and hopefully, that's what people pick up on."

George Strait and Kathy Mattea sing Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Pacific Amphitheatre, 100 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $15 to $23.50. Information: (714) 634-1300.

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