How Kathy Mattea Got Her Voice Back With 'Pretty Bird'

Sep 19, 2018
Originally published on September 21, 2018 11:46 am

Kathy Mattea has been successfully making music for a long time. Her first gold album came out in 1987. She won her first Grammy in 1990. For a while, she was putting out albums every year or two. But Mattea's latest LP, Pretty Bird, out now, is the country artist's first release in six years — and it almost didn't come out at all.

"I was out on the road playing," Mattea says. "And I'd play some song that I've played for 20 years, and I'd go up for a note that I know how to hit and it wouldn't come out. It'd be kind of tight, or flat or strained. And I kind of buried my head in the sand for a while, and then I finally was like, 'I'm going to need to find out what this is.'"

It was age. Mattea was in her 50s and her voice was changing with menopause. After years of singing, she faced a choice: Learn to cope or walk away from music altogether.

Mattea says a chance encounter with Tony Bennett gave her a glimmer of hope. He told her about his own struggles with his aging voice, and she asked him what his secret was. His advice? Find a teacher and re-learn to sing. So she did. Mattea's coach encouraged her to not think of her voice as diminished, but just different.

"I've come to think of it as maybe I have a vintage Ferrari on my hands, but I just don't know how to drive it," Mattea says. "It's all about not trying. It's about getting out of the way over and over and over again."

There were days when something would click, and Mattea's longtime guitarist, Bill Cooley, says he would be struck by the beauty of her voice. Then the next week, her voice would falter again, and Mattea couldn't figure out why.

Kathy Mattea plays live in NPR Studios.
Eric Lee / NPR

"There were some ugly cry days in my living room, where I was just so frustrated," Mattea says. "I didn't want to leave [music], if I didn't have to. But I wasn't going to do it halfway."

Eventually, things gelled. On her latest album, Mattea's new range and maturity is on full display. She sings the Hazel Dickens song "Pretty Bird" a capella — with a kind of deep richness only time can provide.

Mattea spoke with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly about Pretty Bird and performed songs from the album live in NPR's studios. Hear their conversation and the performance at the audio link at the top of the page.

Alyssa Edes and Emily Kopp produced and edited this interview for broadcast.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit


Kathy Mattea has been making music a long time. Her first gold album came out in 1987. She won her first Grammy in 1990. For a while, she was putting out albums every year or two.


KATHY MATTEA: (Singing) Sittin' on the front porch, ice cream in my hand.

KELLY: Kathy Mattea's new album, "Pretty Bird," is her first in six years, and it almost didn't come out at all. When Mattea came by our studios to play with her longtime guitarist Bill Cooley, I asked her why.

MATTEA: I was out on the road playing, and I would play some song I've played for 20 years and I'd go up for a note that I know how to hit and it wouldn't come out. It'd be kind of tight or flat or strained, and I kind of buried my head in the sand for a while. And then I finally was like, I'm going to need to find out what this is.

KELLY: What it is was age - menopause. Mattea was in her 50s, and her voice was changing. A chance encounter gave her some hope.

MATTEA: Actually, I had had a conversation with Tony Bennett one time in my life.

KELLY: The Tony Bennett.

MATTEA: The Tony Bennett. I said I heard you sing tonight, and I know how old you are, and I want to know how you do it. And he was incredibly gracious, and he said, well, my voice isn't what it once was, but it's a lot better than it was a couple years ago. I found a teacher, and I started working again. And so I just filed that away in the back of my mind, and I thought, OK, I'm going to go and find out if my voice is at the end of its life or if it is something that I just need to, like, get to know in a new way.


MATTEA: (Singing) It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta.

So I would walk out on stage and just say, having some vocal problems. We're going to find out together tonight what my voice will do, and sometimes, I hit kryptonite. And if I do, we'll just start all over.

KELLY: (Laughter) Right.

MATTEA: And I've discovered my audience doesn't care if I'm perfect. They just want me to be real.

KELLY: Yeah. This is the thing - we always judge ourselves so much harshly than anybody else. I'm sure when you were 25 you didn't think that was perfect either probably at the time.

MATTEA: And a lot of these songs that I've chosen to sing, I couldn't sing when I was 25.


MATTEA: (Singing) Then she said, I got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge. Today, Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

That's a low C. I could hit it, but it didn't - it didn't have that thing, you know?


MATTEA: So that's part of what happened. I started to think, oh, well, I've got this old thing. It's like an old car. It's a Volvo. It's kind of classy, sturdy. And if I take good care of her, I can limp along with her for the rest of my life. And my teacher Judi would say, I would encourage you not to think of your voice as diminished. It's just different. Like, oh, I think maybe I have a vintage Ferrari on my hands, and I just don't know how to drive it, you know?

KELLY: (Laughter).


KELLY: Did you ever seriously think about walking away from music? I mean, did you think through what that would look like?

MATTEA: Well, you know, I wasn't going down without a fight. I mean, really, there were some ugly cry days in my living room where I was just so frustrated. I didn't want to leave it if I didn't have to, but I wasn't going to do it halfway.

KELLY: Another song on here that's a little bit of a different feel - "Mercy Now."


MATTEA: (Singing) Fall and rot slowly on the ground.

This is an old song, and I found myself just listening to it all the time. And one day, I was like, Bill, I want to try this. And so we sang through it a few times, and he was like, yeah, I don't think you should play this in front of anybody yet.


MATTEA: And we kept at it and kept at it and kept at it, and I couldn't get it. I mean, I would sing it and I would just be like, I do not believe a word this woman says. And we'd put it on the shelf, and life went on. And about two or three months later, I sang through it, and he said, I don't know what happened, but you've got it.


MATTEA: (Singing) My church and my country could use a little mercy now.

KELLY: What's this song about? I mean, I can hear the words, but what's it about to you?

MATTEA: I think this song has healing properties. I really do. There's talk about polarization and there's talk about politics and there's talk about the culture, but nobody talks about mercy. And mercy doesn't come from us. It comes from somewhere else. And it is the factor that heals. And I think that's why I was so drawn to this song.


MATTEA: (Singing) And the people in power, they'll do anything to keep their crown. Oh, I love life, and life itself could use some mercy now.

You know, I think at moments like this, especially if you're an artist of any kind, you have to decide what you want to add to the conversation with your art? Songs have so much power because they don't take very long, and they come in through the back door of our brain. And they get to us and connect us in ways that sometimes we can't do face to face with words with each other. So, you know, I've been singing for people and saying I don't know who you guys voted for. I don't really care because I wouldn't want anyone to walk out of my show not feeling welcome. So I get people singing and I talk about music, and that's where I've decided I want to plant my flag these days.

KELLY: I want to go out on a song called "Pretty Bird."

MATTEA: Yes. This is a Hazel Dickens song. Hazel Dickens is, like, the voice of Appalachia. If Appalachia, where I'm from in West Virginia, had a voice, it would be Hazel Dickens' voice. And she wrote this song years ago, and I've loved it. And I tried to do it. I could not get it - tried to do it, could not get it. And during this process, there was this moment where I was taking a shower before bed, and I started singing. And I was like - I'm soaping up, and I'm like, oh, my God, oh, my God, I'm singing this. I'm like, no, really? And now I'm soaking wet. What am I going to do now? So I rinse off. I'm still singing. I'm still singing. I get out of the shower. I pick up the landline at my house, call my voicemail and sing into my voicemail...

KELLY: Are you serious?

MATTEA: ...So I won't forget that I learned this song. So it was just one of those, like, you put in the work, and then one day, something comes out.

KELLY: That seems to be your process. I mean, with each of these songs, you've described I tried to sing it and I couldn't sing it and I couldn't sing it for years, and then suddenly something changed, and I was ready.

MATTEA: Yeah. What was it Bill said? Bill and I were teaching last week, and he - you said something about - you know, you practice and practice and practice and practice and you can't get it and you can't get it and you can't get it. And one day, it comes to you. Well, it wasn't that one day. It was all that cumulative practice...

BILL COOLEY: Right, right.

MATTEA: ...That made it happen.

KELLY: All right.

MATTEA: All right. I need a G, Bill.

COOLEY: (Playing guitar).

MATTEA: How do I sing this song (laughter)? Give me an A flat. Let's try that. I'll be in G by the end of the song. But I've learned that doesn't matter. OK. (Singing) Fly away little, pretty bird. Fly, fly away. Fly away little, pretty bird. And pretty you'll always stay.

KELLY: Kathy Mattea singing the title track to her new album, "Pretty Bird," an album that almost didn't get made.

MATTEA: (Singing) Your own tender love you'd bring. Fly away little, pretty bird. Cold runneth the spring. Love's own tender flames... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.