"Calling Me Home"
Sugar Hill Records
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I guess it's a fact of life that as you head toward the "back nine" (read: post-50), you tend to be more reflective, often about how and where you grew up. Since her chart-topping run in the '80s when she was one of country music's most celebrated and awarded singers, Kathy Mattea has looked more and more inward, a road that always leads her back to West Virginia.
She admittedly discovered the depth of West Virginia native Hazel Dickens' music late in the game -- only five years or so before Dickens' passing. That harmonic convergence was realized in 2008's "Coal" and in her latest CD, aptly titled "Calling Me Home."
This handpicked collection of songs celebrates Appalachia in all its beauty and sadness, from Jean Ritchie's "West Virginia Mine Disaster" to Alice Gerrard's haunting a capella title track, to Dickens' "West Virginia, My Home" (which should unquestionably be adopted as the official state song). The treatments are passionate and reverential, notably on Laurie Lewis' "The Maple's Lament" (featuring Stuart Duncan's fiddle) and the always timely "Hello, My Name is Coal." And while Mattea doesn't have to (or try to re-create) Dickens' raw power, her voice brings a contemporary yet timeless quality to the songs.
Leading the way with longtime guitarist Bill Cooley, she enlists star power from the likes of Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless and Tim & Mollie O'Brien, evidence of the high regard in which she's held. With nothing but her voice, Mattea's take on Ritchie's "Now is the Cool of the Day" evokes the region's beauty, and, speaking of beauty, Cooley's solo instrumental, "Requiem For a Mountain," says it all without a single word.
Hopefully other West Virginia ex-pats will take notice as Mattea's musical mission fills everyone's cup and gives heart and soul back to the place she still calls home.
"We're Usually a Lot Better Than This"
Tim O'Brien & Darrell Scott
Full Light Records
Release date: Oct. 9
Recorded in 2005 and 2006 at benefits for North Carolina's Arthur Morgan School, this live set of 13 tunes includes songs that remain staples of both musicians' shows. Old friends and longtime musical partners, O'Brien and Scott have a fast and loose style that, in Scott's words, "eggs each other towards the edge of crash & burn." The result is a fun, spontaneous set that takes in a wide swathe of American music, a Celtic detour and tunes from their 2000 Grammy-nominated collaboration, "Real Time."
The set kicks off with O'Brien's "Climbing Up a Mountain," a quick, bluegrass tune that offers plenty of soloing all around. The two voices blend effortlessly, if not altogether smoothly, on tracks like the a capella take on Hank Williams' "House of Gold."
Standouts include Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner Blues," Keith Whitley's gospel stomp "You Don't Have to Move That Mountain" and the rave-up take on Blind Willie Johnson's "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning." O'Brien also sports some incendiary banjo work on "With a Memory Like Mine."