West Virginia may be the Rodney Dangerfield of our states: beset with fatal mining disasters and environmental pollution in a toxic mix of corruption and passivity. Kathy Mattea may be its most faithful mirror, reflecting with loving clarity the problems and the people struggling in her beloved Mountain State.
On Saturday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Mattea displayed impressively courageous artistic growth since her mainstream country stardom, retaining the strengths that burnished that star: a gorgeous voice and unerring intelligence in choosing songs that make the most of it in sound and sense. She has become the bard of her people and her time.
Mattea borrowed from Pete Seeger’s singalong formula, giving credit and noting (with admiration, not rancor) that he’d won a Grammy in a category where she was nominated, and she united the near-capacity crowd with her in a resounding and powerful chorus. She took her time creating this unanimous mood; at first the mountain dazzle of her band and the vocal flourish that elevated her nostalgic opening number awed more than enlisted. Guitarist Bill Cooley may be the fastest immobile-looking flat-picker around, David Spicher got (and earned) more solo time on Saturday than most bassists get in whole tours, and Eamonn O’Rourke colored inside and outside the lines with mandolin and fiddle zip. All but Cooley sang, and well, though none so well as silver-tongued Mattea.
Early on, after a table-setting sequence with “Lonesome Standard Time,” “Standing Knee Deep in a River (Dying of Thirst)” and “Untold Stories” as standouts, Mattea noted both grandfathers were miners before launching what she called a “fossil fuels” run: “Gone, Gonna Rise Again,” “Hello, My Name is Coal,” “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” lamenting too-early deaths for too-little pay. “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Any More,” “18 Wheels and A Dozen Roses,” “455 Rocket” and “The Wood Thrush’s Song” lightened the mood only slightly, referencing loss, but humanizing it.
Later in her two-hour set, she shifted from mountain laments by Jean Richie, Hazel Dickens, Sy Khan, Laurie Lewis and Larry Cordle to such lighter material as Nanci Griffith’s “Love at the Five and Dime,” a great singalong; the churchy “Everything Is Holy Now” — a gamble that paid off as she read handwritten lyrics at her feet — “Sing Like Nobody’s Listening,” another singalong; and the goofy, rollicking “Harley.”
When fans called out requests, her tender, loving “Where’ve You Been” got the biggest shout-outs, Mattea joking she was no fool and would certainly sing it. She did, beautifully, but added a self-deprecating story about a county fair PA announcement stepping on its punchline. She closed with the mining lament “Coal Tattoo,” giving her band an extra stretch with a tasty Celtic coda. Then, after singing nearly two hours and fighting a cough early on, she encored alone with the Hazel Dickens classic “Calling Me Home;” no band, no guitar; just a great voice soaring in a great song.