Kathy Mattea: Where She’s Been

By Sam Gaines

Kathy Mattea walks the road of Coal Country in her native West Virginia.

Three-time Grammy winner Kathy Mattea has built a solid career as a singer-songwriter and touring musician no matter how she’s pegged. She’s found success at the pinnacle of country music, scoring 12 Top Ten singles and three No. 1 hits. She’s sold millions of albums.

Kathy has also overcome great personal adversity, a fact she is quite open about—and one that only further endears her to her passionate fans.

In 2008, Kathy released her 15th album, Coal, a heartfelt collection of songs about her home state, West Virginia. Coming in the wake of the 2006 Sago Mine disaster, the album stirred not only memories of home in Cross Lanes, W. Va., but those of family members and friends as they recalled the many stories and songs they grew up with. It was also the last time Kathy would be able to communicate with her aunt, the third sister (including Kathy’s mom, who passed in the 1990s) to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Preserving Your Memory: The Sago mine disaster from 2006 prompted recording of your most recent release, Coal. What about that tragedy struck a chord to the extent that you wanted to revisit your own past as a musician?

Kathy Mattea: Actually, it was an interesting process. I found myself feeling a lot of grief as it unfolded. I followed the story day by day, checking the TV hour by hour, the Internet. I was completely gripped by it. I was surprised at how strong my reaction was to it. When they had the public funerals, Larry King Live covered it. They wanted a graceful way to end the show, and asked if I would come down and sing a song via satellite feed. I immediately called a bunch of musicians I know to help, and they were very anxious to help. It all came together very quickly. Somewhere along the process I discovered that people were eager to use music as a tool for grieving. I thought about making a record touching on this subject, and then it all started to come together.

PYM: Your fans are passionate about your music, to put it mildly. How would you characterize the relationship of your music to your fans? What has their response to Coal been? How have your family and friends from West Virginia responded?

KM: What I find is that I try to choose songs that mean something to me, and that resonate with some deeper thing musically or lyrically or both. The people who are passionate about what I’m doing also have that passion, and thus we’re kindred spirits. People have loved Coal. I know I have really yanked my fans around on this musical journey. But it’s been very much a progression, and my fans have already seemed delighted by the surprise of it. I’m trying to keep myself interested in the present, and growing, and they are delighted to come along the journey. That’s one of the things that keeps me going in this—there are so many great songs and challenges out there, and it’s just so fun.

Coal has also gotten lovely responses from the folks back home. I have an aunt who, from the time I began this record until now, has really sunken into Alzheimer’s. She said, “I wish your Mom could’ve been around for this.” I’m so glad my aunt got to be part of it. I got to ask her questions and talk with her about the music, before she started to get worse.

PYM: You’ve been at the very pinnacle of success in country music, but have also pursued more personal paths with your creativity. Did you see your career taking this trajectory even back in the early 1980s?

KM: Well, first of all, I didn’t have overwhelming success from the beginning. I had moderate success—two albums before I had a hit—but I got to grow into it. I got lucky. I had a record company that really believed in me, and they gave me space to grow. And my producer back then is now a legendary guy, and he was marvelous. He told me, “It’s all about the song—if you get a great song, and sing it well and frame it well, you’ve got it. The rest is just window dressing.” He taught me to cut through the BS and try to listen for the heart of the song, the heart of the recording, and sing from that place. Even then there was a real acoustic and folk influence to what I was doing, and I would get very divergent reviews—one would call me a traditionalist, another very modern, and they were reviewing the same record. I just find something authentic and bring it forward—that’s always been at the center of what I try to do.

PYM: Your music has always touched such a personal, emotional chord with your fans, even as you explore so many different musical avenues that you can’t really be described as simply a “country artist,” “folk artist,” or anything else. Over the years, has the loving response of your fans to your music and its directions surprised you?

KM: I don’t know. I can’t say. Early on, I hoped that by this point, that I’m still enjoying it, still growing, still have enough of a fan base that I can make records, perform and contribute. And here I am.

It’s an interesting thing. I got really lucky finding Alan Reynolds. Then there was this other person, a producer I never met, and he gave me this life-changing couple of sentences: “She’s got a lovely instrument, but she’s not really singing—she’s just making beautiful noise. She’s singing notes, but she’s not singing the words to the songs.” So I started trying to learn the difference. I started trying to inhabit the lyrics, not having to think about mechanically reproducing the melody and really being centered through the lyrics. It gave me a different point of view with a song, which led ironically to my style—which is not to have a style, to just be with the song and let the song be. It was a thrill that people got it, and it’s still the biggest gift. Sometimes you connect, and sometimes you don’t. But when you are really there with the song, with the band, with the audience, you are blessed.

PYM: You and your family have been hit hard by Alzheimer’s disease: Your mom’s older sister, then your Mom, and most recently your mom’s younger sister were all diagnosed. When did you first become aware of the condition itself and how it affects people?

KM: Oh, Lord, I can’t remember. My grandmother had dementia pretty bad, but there was no Alzheimer’s diagnosis back then, so we’ve always wondered about that. It was before my aunt and my Mom had symptoms.

PYM: One of your signature songs, written by your husband Jon Vezner, is the classic “Where’ve You Been”. From the lyrics, it seems that dementia or Alzheimer’s touched his parents’ lives, as well. Is that true?

KM: His grandmother didn’t have a diagnosis, but it was definitely dementia. And it was the sight of him that brought her back. I can’t say that it was definitely Alzheimer’s.

PYM: Do you see a role for music in helping people who suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as their caregivers?

KM: Oh, absolutely. I remember my Mom loved to watch TV until she got to the point where she couldn’t differentiate what was real and what was TV. We had to edit the shows, because it got so confusing for her. But when she heard music, she would start tapping her feet as she held my hand.

I have this kind of iconic story that I tell in my shows a lot. There was this day I went home to visit. My dad’s cancer had just been diagnosed, and his was progressing faster than my Mom’s condition was. A bunch of college friends were having a reunion camping out in the mountains that weekend, and I was on my way and came home early to spend some time with my Mom before the reunion. I had ordered a guitar for one of my friends, who was just starting to play, and I got it out of the package just to check it out and make sure it wasn’t broken. I hit a chord, and my Mom just piped up and started singing “Love at the Five and Dime.” And Nancy, her dear caregiver, just got ecstatic. “Every night, we get a boom box out before dinner and play your Greatest Hits CD, and then we make dinner,” she said. My mom was tone-deaf, she could not carry a tune and never sang. She wouldn’t even sing “Happy Birthday.” But as her Alzheimer’s developed, she forgot she didn’t sing! So I got my guitar out and sang with my Mom for the first time, all my songs. A year later, when she no longer remembered me, she still could sing “You Are My Sunshine.” Music lives in a deeper place in us than language, than even a sense of who we are. It was such a blessing. She had such joy in that moment, and I got joy out of her joy, myself. She could participate, and we could do it together. And the thing was, she actually had a sense of melody. There was no self-consciousness in her. That was the gift she gave us—teaching us what it was just to be.

PYM: Has songwriting, recording and performing helped you deal with the intense emotions that loving and caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s disease stirs up? If so, how?

KM: Definitely. You know, sitting and playing guitar during the long hours at my folks’ house, my brothers would come and go, but I was there 24/7. I was steeping in it 24/7, and it would get very intense sometimes, so I would go for a run, or work on my music. It was very helpful because I could get lost in it, and it was (or wasn’t) pleasant for everyone else.

My dad died a couple of months before my mom was diagnosed with AD, and he was deteriorating physically and mentally quickly, and we didn’t know how long he had. I had to make a decision: two more shows to do to finish the tour, then three months off. I made a judgment call, drove to the first show, came walking in at the gig in Kentucky, and they just looked at me. My sweet drummer looked at me and asked, “How are you going to do this?” And I said, “I don’t know.” That night I realized that all the things people had said to me about how they responded to my songs, I got to experience that night. Even if I don’t get to see my dad again, I’m serving my gift—I’m doing what I’m here to do. It’s not without meaning. I was just really glad that I could incorporate my life experience into that performance, I didn’t have to hide it. I could channel it, and use that to perform my music. I felt very connected that night.

That’s one of the gifts of pain—it slams you into the moment. We spend so much time avoiding the moment, but that’s where eternity lives, that’s where the mystery lives. So instead of singing for or at people, I just focus on being with people, being with the songs, being with the band, being with my voice, and letting it happen.

I did an event for an AD group here in Nashville last weekend. One thing I shared with them was one of the things that got me through the grief of losing my parents: SFC therapy—as in, Snot-Flingin’ Cry. I would just have these waves of it, and just had to let it come. Just crumple into a ball on the floor and let ’er rip, and then I’d be OK for a while—until the next wave. I was my own little experiment, in letting myself have my grief. When I got the call that my Mom had passed, the wave of grief I felt was so huge. I was surprised at how hard that was. The other thing that really struck me about my grief, was that I would be crying about my mom, I’d wind up crying about something else—grief is like this underground lake, and when I stick my toe in, I feel the whole lake. For me, that is essential. We’re afraid to feel the grief, but it is essential. A friend told me a while back that while she was going through a very difficult period, her friend told her, just go cry as much as you can, then call me right back. So she just let loose and bawled for 20 minutes, and that was all she had in her. Then she called back. I think the body is made to handle grief if we let it come.

PYM: We are a nation that is growing older, broadly speaking, which means dementia and AD are becoming more prevalent. As you meet your fans when you tour, do you find they, too, have been affected by Alzheimer’s?

KM: Oh, yes. People really appreciate that story about my Mom singing, and I share that frequently in my performances. It’s not an uncommon thing. When someone has AD, it’s a recognition of their primary relationship that can bring them back however long. I’ve heard countless stories of how that has manifested in people’s lives. It’s a lovely thing to me.

I did a show a couple of years ago, and a woman came through the autograph line with her husband and, when they both got to me, she just burst into tears, just fell into my arms. She just cried on my shoulder for a while, and I just held her. And after a few minutes of that, she just looked me in the eye and I looked her in the eye, and we nodded to each other. No words. Her husband told me, “She just buried her mother this morning. Thank you just for being here.”

That’s one thing about being with music—it opens up something in people that is just beyond what we can express sometimes. She waited in line to have that moment of connection. It was a long line. And she just needed to be there with me.

Music That Heals

A large body of research confirms that music can soothe the difficult emotions that dementia and Alzheimer’s disease so often generate. “Music that has the most calming effect is that which is personal to [the patients]—music that relates to them emotionally and stimulates a sense of knowing and familiarity,” says Concetta Tomaino, D.A., MT-BC, LCAT (right), the executive director of The Institute for Music and Neurologic Function (IMNF). “Music with harmonious melodies, or with slow rhythms, can have that effect as well, even if it is unfamiliar.”

Relying on their expertise in programming music designed to improve the quality of a patient’s life, IMNF established Well-Tuned: Music Players for Health program. The program works simply: The family member or caregiver of a person with dementia also receives a consultation with a trained professional to select music that is appropriate for their loved one. For a small fee (along with the cost of purchased music), patients or caregivers can send their iPods (any model) to IMNF for programming. IMNF takes care of downloading music to the player, then sends it back to the patient or caregiver.

Well-Tuned emerged from IMNF listening programs. “We met with the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation and with Dan Cohen, director of the Foundation’s Music & Memory project,” Dr. Tomaino explains. “Together with Dan we assessed the impact of using digital music technology, such as iPods, to easily bring individualized music to nursing facility residents. The outcomes were very positive from direct care staff as well as some of the project participants. This project has led to the creation of Well-Tuned, a program that can be easily accessed through our web page, so anybody anywhere in the world can download suggested song titles or customize a program with our help.”

Dr. Tomaino says that there is a powerful connection between music and memory, one that can change a person’s mood for the better. “We know from research that popular music and songs people enjoyed in their teens and twenties are the songs they may find soothing and comforting as older adults,” she says. “When someone with dementia is unable to choose their own favorite songs, it’s best to start by choosing music that was popular when they were young adults, and see which songs they respond to. Another factor to consider when selecting music for people with dementia is the personal connection they may have to specific songs—what music did their family play in the home?” That’s why hymns may make sense for one person with Alzheimer’s, while jazz might be the right genre for another.

To learn more about the Well-Tuned program, visit the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function website or call 1-888-792-2247.

Source: www.ALZinfo.org. Author: Sam Gaines, Preserving Your Memory: The Magazine of Health and Hope; Winter 2009.