There is something about this time of year that calls for acoustic concerts. Whether it’s the sun going down earlier in the day, the leaves on the ground or just the nip in the air, it feels right that performers would unplug their instruments and let the power of their voice and talent propel the performance forward.
Kathy Mattea, performing Wednesday night at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, doesn’t necessarily see her current tour in these terms. Her “Songs and the Season” program may call for more acoustic renditions of certain holiday standards, but the sheer magnitude of the music being played – as well as the number of musicians on stage – meant that the show wouldn’t be able to be truly “unplugged.”
“We’ve been doing a more acoustic set, but with the Christmas show we actually needed more players providing instrumentation, so it’s not entirely unplugged,” she explains. “It’s fun to go back and approach Christmas music this way, like making the show more percussiony.... It’s just very fun for us to mix things up in a different way and see what happens.”
While Mattea has toured the Triangle, this will be the first time her holiday show, anchored by selections from her Christmas collections “Good News and Joy for Christmas Day,” has settled into a nearby venue in many years. Christmas shows by definition have a very short “sell-by” date, but the same amount of rehearsal goes into planning for them as a tour in any other season that may stay on the road for months.
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“We’ve been doing the Christmas tours for about 20 years now,” Mattea says. “Last year was our first year back after taking four off. It’s a lot of work to learn a whole new show for a month of dates, so we took a little time off to rest before hitting the road again last year. There were actually people who contacted us a year ago about setting dates for this year, so we decided to take it back out.
“It’s really fun, because these songs live for the season. That’s the joy of it, that everyone is walking through this contemplative season at the same time, and we get a chance to express that musically. We get to have a conversation about it through our music, in the middle of all of the trips to the mall and the baking, to just take a few minutes to remember that this time of the season is about hope. That’s, for me, what I crave about this tour and what is different about it.”
Coal mining heritage
Mattea’s recent career path has led directly toward her exploring conversations through her music – conversations about her heritage in particular. In 2009 she was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Traditional Folk Album category for “Coal,” a collection of cover songs all dealing with coal mining. Growing up in the Appalachian hills of West Virginia, Mattea listened as family members told stories of working in the mines.
“The ‘Coal’ record changed everything for me,” she says. “It changed how I think about music, and it changed how I think about my own story. My parents grew up in small coal towns; both of my grandfathers were coal miners, but my dad got out of the mine. Originally I thought of ‘Coal’ as their story, not my story, but what I learned from digging into those songs, from talking to my family about what I was doing, it would bring up little stories that I had heard before but now I was hearing them in a new way, and what I was beginning to realize was that the story of ‘Coal’ didn’t stop at my parents generation. It affected me, too. I just didn’t think of it that way because my dad didn’t come home with coal dust all over him at the end of the day. So I got to learn that it still affected me, and it still affects all of us. The story of ‘Coal’ is ongoing and current.”
Discussion of that album brings with it another sticky subject in regard to Mattea’s career: why she is now considered a folk artist, when she was one of the most powerful female artists on the country charts during the late 1980s through the ’90s. Mattea is as confused as anyone by the current climate of country music.
“It’s interesting to me, because the way that we talk about music is so awkward,” she says. “It’s like we have to put music into boxes in order to describe it to someone and explain why they might like it. Right now, what is considered traditional country is called Americana. Guys like Sturgill Simpson, he sounds like Waylon Jennings to me, but when I was coming up, Waylon was being played on mainstream country radio, and that’s just not happening anymore.
“I think what happens is that as access to music changes, labels sort of begin to shift around. It’s a struggle in any given moment to figure out what those labels point toward. What might have pointed toward mainstream country radio in my era might be called Americana or folk now, so it’s always an interesting thing to observe as we try to figure out a way to communicate about it.”
Who: Kathy Mattea
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Info: 919-560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org