by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & abels can be so limiting. Look for Kathy Mattea's music in most record shops and you'll find it filed under Country, thanks to her long association with Nashville-based Mercury Records and her many honors from the Country Music Association (including female vocalist of the year in 1989 and 1990). But despite her success in the Nashville scene, Mattea never fit the mold of country music diva. After 17 years with Mercury, she asked to be released from her contract, landing in 2002 at the Narada record label, where she's been able to explore more fully the myriad styles -- folk, gospel, bluegrass, Celtic, rock -- that shape her musical world. She brings that tapestry of influences to the Opera House this weekend where she'll lend her richly expressive voice (and her talented band) to a SuperPops date with the Spokane Symphony.
"I've always had really eclectic tastes, so maybe I feel a little more free to express that," she says. "I feel less restricted now, less like I have to stay in a certain genre."
Changing from a country standard bearer like Mercury to a label known for acoustic and world music seems like a dramatic shift on the surface, but Mattea says it feels more like a progression than a sharp break with the past. Indeed, even while she scored country hits like "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses," Mattea kept an ear open to the sounds going on beyond Nashville. She championed songs by folk and alternative artists like David Mallett, Cheryl Wheeler, Gillian Welch, Julie Gold and Nanci Griffith, whose "Love at the Five and Dime" became Mattea's first Top 10 hit in 1986. Around that time, as her career blossomed, she discovered the music of Scotland's Dougie MacLean; the two have become fast friends and have collaborated musically since Mattea's 1991 album, Time Passes By.
"Pat Flynn [New Grass Revival] turned me on to him," she recalls. "And then I had the chance to meet Dougie, and it was like meeting somebody you've always known."
After meeting in Nashville, MacLean invited Mattea and her husband, songwriter Jon Vezner, to visit him in Scotland. Soon, MacLean's home became something of a refuge for Mattea as her career took off back home and the pressures grew.
"My career was really heating up then and when it got to be too much we'd just go over to Scotland for a visit, to get away from it all," she says. "When we're there, a lot of what we do is just hang out with Dougie and his friends and play music. It's a completely different way of approaching the culture. Music is very much part of day-to-day life there. In the rural areas, that's what people do -- they hang out and play music together."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & ow in her mid-40s, Mattea has been dealing recently with the kinds of personal issues common to middle age. She lost her father to cancer in 2003 and her mother to Alzheimer's disease last summer; she and her husband struggled through some rough patches in their marriage of 20-plus years. These losses and heartaches weave through her latest album, Right Out of Nowhere, but the result is an emergence from darkness and pain, a sense of being changed yet cleansed.
"If you call yourself an artist you can't help but reflect your own life experience in your music," she says. "It's part of the mystery of it all -- you sing a song that's personal to you and yet it's reflective of something universal, too."
Part of that mystery goes back to one of Mattea's early hits, "Where've You Been," a plaintive ballad written by Vezner and Don Henry about a woman with Alzheimer's and her ailing husband. Vezner wrote it about his grandparents, but the song took on an intensely personal meaning for Mattea during her mother's long journey through the disease. Such a song could have become incredibly difficult for her to sing now, but she says instead it is a touchstone.
"There was this moment when my father was declining and I'd been home for the weekend to spend time with him but had to go back out on the road and perform," she says. "And I thought, "How am I going to do this? How am I going to go out there and sing?' But as I did the show I realized that music -- singing -- was a comfort to me. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to sing. It actually feeds me."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hrough all the transitions of recent years, what has kept Mattea going is the faith that if she stayed true to herself -- and went through the pain of experience rather than avoiding it -- everything would work out. When she left Mercury Records, she didn't have a plan but she knew that somehow it was the right thing to do. Her philosophy comes forth in the title song of her new CD, where she sings, "Dream and the way will be clear ... Leap and the net will appear."
"That's an easy line to say but not an easy line to live," she says. "You can talk about faith all day, but what you really feel about faith shows in what action you take. When I've taken those chances and made those decisions, life has fallen into place -- I can't always see it when I'm in the middle of it, but looking back I can connect the dots. I think the special challenge in being human is living like that. When I can live that line, life is sweet."
Kathy Mattea performs with the Spokane Symphony SuperPops on Saturday, April 1, at 8 pm at the Opera House, 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. Tickets: $17-$39. Call 624-1200.