Mattea Puts Artistic Growth First : Nashville's female vocalist of the year, who plays in Santa Ana next week, isn't ready to cash in on her success.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kathy Mattea stepped into Nashville's front rank in 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 Monday and Tuesday at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana--went off to Scotland after the awards show to visit with Celtic musicians whom she and her songwriter husband, Jon Vezner, had befriended. Far from making her want to grab for riches while the moment is ripe, Mattea said, success has caused her to step back and reflect on some deeper issues.

For instance, now that she has the country audience's attention, how should she use that forum? Should she stick with what has worked before, or explore the new directions that her hanging out with Celtic musicians might suggest?

And what about breaking out of Nashville's relatively confined rodeo ring and into the bigger pop arena, with its far greater potential rewards? (Mattea's style, marked by an exceptionally pure, supple voice that lends unforced dignity even to the most sentimental material, isn't far removed from the '70s Southern California soft rock sound of Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles).

After five albums and a steady, gradual rise to the country summit, Mattea, 30, says that she wants to take risks and court change.

"When I got back from Scotland, I was going to play on the Opry. I pulled something out of the closet with all these rhinestones on it, and I said, 'I feel like I'm playing dress-up.' I want to integrate more, to feel that who I am on stage is less and less different from who I am in real life.

"It's been a real time for evaluating," she continued. "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 in Hollywood, 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 ascension on the Nashville scene began when she was 19. A coal miner's granddaughter, she dropped out of West Virginia University to take a chance as a country singer-songwriter.

"I was afraid I'd sit behind a desk and push a pencil the rest of my life. I was terrified of being bored," she said. Her parents were terrified that this high school science and math whiz was ruining her prospects for a secure career. That tension did wonders for Mattea's songwriting. "Leaving West Virginia," a lovely, wistful ballad she wrote at the time of her departure from her hometown of Cross Lanes, is so far the only song of her own that Mattea has recorded.

Lacking connections in the music business, Mattea got a job as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Piping up all day to answer tourists' questions damaged her singing voice, and she went through a year of vocal training to restore her full range. Mattea said that she continues a regular regimen of lessons and exercises to keep her voice in shape. While working as a secretary and waitress, she began to do vocal grunt work, singing on demo tapes for songwriters and music publishers. The voice on those tapes won her a recording deal with Mercury Records, and by 1983, five years after her arrival in Nashville, Mattea had released her first album.

In 1986, she won attention with her version of Nanci Griffith's sweet story song "Love at the Five & Dime." A 1987 album, "Untasted Honey," included "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses," another sentimental tale that, like "Five & Dime," focused on a couple settled in a lasting love. The recent hit, "Where've You Been," returned to the theme of deep love at an advanced age. This time, Mattea said, the story was true, written by her husband about a poignant episode from his grandparents' dying days. The song, featuring piano and bowed upright bass, moved away from country conventions, toward a sparse chamber-pop ballad sound.

Mattea said the new album she has begun recording should bring other changes from Nashville norms. And, after setting aside her songwriting since the early '80s, Mattea says she now feels ready to resume writing some of her own material.

"Songwriting is a different kind of risk than I've been taking," she said. "It's giving to your fans in a way that exposes you. If you invest in a song, it gives people this whole other dimension of you. It's a step of growth for me."

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 past few years might have reservations about the different, change-seeking artist that she hopes to become. And if a remade Mattea were to appeal more to pop audiences, some resentment could arise in purist country circles.

"That's always a concern," she said. "What happens if my musical restlessness takes me outside the bounds of (country conventions)? I'm fully aware I may end up on Rounder Records (an adventurous independent company) or some other small label. But am I doing it to be on a major label, or to make the music I think I can? I think about it every day. I don't know if I'm stepping outside the bounds or not. 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 she appeared recently as a television spokeswoman for an AIDS fund-raising walk-a-thon 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. People tend to be real judgmental."

Kathy Mattea plays Monday and Tuesday nights at 7 and 10 at the Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow Drive, Santa Ana. Tickets cost $25; remaining seats are limited. Information: (714) 549-1512.

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