To be a singer — who isn’t a singer/songwriter — is, it would seem, to be a bit of an actor. After all, a song is comprised of characters living out a story, with the help of a musical interpreter stepping in and bringing it all to life. It’s a job that requires not only physical talent, but also emotional empathy, as the singer must connect with the heart of the song, if the audience is to do the same. Vocal gymnastics might get a singer noticed, but they rarely convey any real compassion.
Known for decades as one of Nashville’s most gifted song interpreters, Kathy Mattea returns after a six-year break with Pretty Bird, a collection of cuts from a seemingly disparate array of sources like Joan Osborne and Martha Carson that isn’t all that disparate at all. Each writer brings their own folk-country-gospel upbringings to bear in these songs, as does Mattea.
Take Osborne’s “St. Teresa,” for instance. Inspired by a drug-addled woman living on the street in Brooklyn, it’s not a big stretch to shift that perspective to an opioid-inflicted small town in Appalachia. That’s how Mattea approaches each of these songs — by connecting it to something within herself and her own life.
The set kicks off with the modestly jubilant bounce of “Chocolate on My Tongue,” Oliver Woods’ ode to ice cream, Al Green, and other “good enough reasons to live.” Knowing that Mattea spent a few years facing the possibility of not being able to sing casts that gratitude-for-simplicity number in a whole new light.
Contrasting solemnity to celebration, she takes on Mary Gauthier’s deeply affecting “Mercy Now” further into the set. Mattea has said that it took her a while to find her way into this one, which she eventually — and thoroughly — did. Her performance is understated, perhaps weighted by the gravity of our times. There’s a bit more buoyancy in her faithful and faith-filled handling of Dougie MacLean’s “This Love Will Carr,” to which he adds harmonies.
For Martha Carson’s “I Can’t Stand Up Alone,” Mattea’s voice floats upward all on its own, eventually joined by a gospel-tinged choir, a Bill Cooley guitar lick, and a “full tilt jug band.” The number deposits her — and the song cycle — at the feet of Hazel Dickens’ “Pretty Bird” to close it all out a cappella.
All through Pretty Bird, Kathy Mattea reaffirms her standing alongside artists likes Judy Collins and Joan Baez who have a way of recasting and reconstructing songs in their own image by smoothing the edges and buffing the shine so that a wider audience might more easily find their way into them.