Published January 27. 2013 4:00AM
Despite the ol' aging-like-fine-wine adage, how often do performers actually sound better decades into their career?
I saw Kathy Mattea in concert at the Garde Arts Center in 1995. And I saw her at the Garde Friday night. I dare say, she has surpassed her earlier stage self. Her alto is richer and more velvety, her presence more relaxed and assured, and her between-song chats more humorous and interesting.
Mattea, 53, had her biggest country-radio hits in the 1980s and '90s; she joked Friday that, considering the big perms and shoulder pads she sported on album covers, that era "was an unfortunate time to get famous."
In the past few years, she has taken a new turn musically. Her last two albums - the Grammy-nominated "Coal" in 2008 and "Calling Me Home" last fall - were inspired by the coal-mining history and Appalachian folk music of her West Virginia home. Both of her grandfathers were coal miners, but it was something else that propelled her onto this new artistic path. She found herself deeply affected by the 2006 Sago disaster in West Virginia that killed 12 miners. At a friend's suggestion, Mattea funneled that emotion into music.
While the idea of performing a series of song tied together by the idea of coal might sound like a polemic gone wrong, it's surprisingly effective. It's more a portrait of a place than a diatribe against coal. Mattea has chosen songs that possess unique music and eloquent lyrics. So there's the lullaby beauty of "Agate Hill," the bluegrass intensity of "Coal Tattoo" and the bluesy strut of "Hello, My Name Is Coal."
That latter song comes equipped with lyrics that really capture the duality faced by people in coal-mining communities: "Hello, my name is coal/Around here, I'm the king./Some say I'm a savior./Some say hell is what I bring."
In introducing that number, which was penned by Larry Cordle and Jeneé Fleenor, Mattea said that we are losing the ability to have civil discourse these days, but that the songwriters here have gracefully laid out the situation without taking sides.
Mattea spent a good deal of time talking about each song and giving credit to the writers. Oh, and she wielded the occasional comic aside, too. After the dark, brooding "West Virginia Mine Disaster" - about a wife who fears for her husband and for how she'll raise their children after hearing that a mining tragedy has happened - Mattea jokingly asked the crowd, "Depressed yet?"
She then said that she's come to appreciate "the beauty in the melancholy" and that it's a rich thing to "sing about the whole human experience."
When Jean Ritchie wrote "West Virginia Mine Disaster" in 1972, Mattea noted, it became a feminist anthem because it was the first song to address that subject from a woman's perspective. Mattea added proudly that Ritchie was both "a hillbilly and a Fulbright scholar."
Despite the difference in subject matter, Mattea's radio hits like "Where've You Been" and "Love at the Five and Dime" fit into the "Coal" mix quite smoothly, as music and as narratives. In concert, Mattea's band shone, with lead guitarist Bill Cooley, fiddle and mandolin player Eamonn O'Rourke, and upright bass player David Spicher.
All this and a Rolling Stones song, too: Mattea and her musicians performed an acoustic but still rocking version of "Gimme Shelter" that was stunning. Afterward, Mattea smiled and said, "That was the folk 'n' roll portion of your evening."