Top Vocalist Puts Growth First : Music: Award-winner Kathy Mattea didn't just cash in.

Kathy Mattea stepped into Nashville's front rank last October when the Country Music Assn. named her its female vocalist of the year.

The first advice she got? Cash in quick.

"After I won the CMA award, somebody said to me, 'You could go on the road and work real hard for two years, and when it's over you can retire. You can be set for life,' " Mattea recalled over the phone this week from her Nashville home.

Instead, Mattea, who plays tonight at the Bacchanal in San Diego, and Monday and Tuesday at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana, said that success has caused her to step back and reflect on some deeper issues.

"It's been a real time for evaluating," said the 30-year-old granddaughter of a West Virginia coal miner, whose exceptionally pure, supple voice highlights a style not far removed from the '70s Southern California soft-rock style of Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles.

"If I want to be female vocalist of the year next year, do I keep doing what I do and be real protective of this little piece of (turf) I have? Or do I want to grow musically and be better in my own mind, and perhaps not be female vocalist of the year?"

For now, the success of Mattea's current album, "Willow in the Wind," which is still in the Top 10 after a year on the country charts, makes it possible that more trophies will be forthcoming. The Academy of Country Music, whose annual awards telecast airs Wednesday from the Pantages Theatre, has nominated Mattea for top female vocalist, album of the year and song of the year ("Where've You Been," which Mattea will sing during the show).

Mattea's slow ascent on the Nashville scene began when she dropped out of West Virginia University at 19 to take a chance as a country singer-songwriter. After stints as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame, a secretary and a waitress, Mattea landed a recording deal with Mercury in 1983.

After five albums, Mattea says she now wants to court musical change. The question is, how much stylistic growth and artistic reach does today's country music business allow?

Such iconoclasts as Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang and Steve Earle have not been endorsed by country radio, and they have turned to rock and pop fans for a large measure of their support. A country music Establishment well-pleased with the Mattea of the last few years might have reservations about the different, change-seeking artist that she hopes to become.

"That's always a concern," she said. "I think about it every day. My only hope is if I make an honest record people will give me the benefit of the doubt. The risk-taking has to come from your own searching out new things to be excited about, and not, 'This will make me a lot of money.' "

There is one important change that Mattea hopes to effect quickly on the Nashville scene.

"I don't think anybody in country music is talking much about AIDS," she said. "I lost a good friend to AIDS last year."

Mattea said that she appeared recently as a television spokeswoman for an AIDS fund-raising walkathon organized by a group called Nashville Cares. "I just told these folks I'm real interested, and they should let me know if there's a way I can help them out. Everybody needs to have their compassion raised about this disease."

SO CAL COUNTRY: Two recent releases by veterans of the Southern California country music scene offer traditionalism with varying returns.

Jann Browne's "Tell Me Why" (Curb Records) showcases a voice of classic sweetness and assured, throaty twang supported by an impeccable cast of singers and pickers that includes Emmylou Harris (a big influence on Browne), Albert Lee, New Grass Revival and the Desert Rose Band's John Jorgenson and Bill Bryson. But all that talent serves songs that too often fall into familiar ruts and standard-issue styles and sentiments that make tradition seem a confining thing.

"Chris Gaffney & the Cold Hard Facts" (ROM) shows what a delight it can be when a songwriter relishes tradition but has the wit and playful spirit to start toying with it. Gaffney's lyrical twists and keen eye for the skewed detail help put his own stamp on songs that have a huge Jones (as in George) for country tradition. The singer-accordionist's winning way with zydeco and Mexican folk styles adds some spice to the honky-tonk feast. Nashville may be ignorant of Gaffney, but the cold, hard fact is that this is one of the best albums of the year so far in any genre.

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