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KATHY MATTEA explains to MIKE NEWMAN why her mining town heritage lies at the heart of her songwriting.
It's often the case that people reaping some success in the music industry turn their backs on where they came from, the fame and the financial rewards conspiring to make them forget their roots.
But it was quite the reverse for double Grammy award-winning country music superstar Kathy Mattea, who drew deeply on her mining heritage to bring out her latest album Coal.
Mattea was born and brought up in West Viriginia. As both grandfathers were miners and her parents grew up in coal camps, mining was in her blood. Her mother worked for the United Mine Workers of America.
Mattea has found great success as a country music singer, but the Sago Mine disaster in 2006 brought her full circle back to the mining community that she came from.
At the funeral of the 12 miners who died at Sago, she was asked by news broadcaster CNN which covered the sad event to finish its coverage with a song.
Since she was 19 years old, Mattea had been collecting mining songs and, while looking through her collection to choose a song that would do justice to the 12 miners and their families, it became apparent that there were enough songs to make an album. So Coal was born.
Mattea and her acoustic band are making a welcome visit to Britain and I managed to talk to her just before she left the US for the start of the tour. I wonder how important Coal was in relation to her many other releases. "I can say that it's unprecedented in lots of ways," she says.
"It's been so much more than just a record. It's been a journey home.
"I've reclaimed many family stories and stitched them together into a more cohesive narrative than I had before.
"I think these songs have opened me up to singing in a different way. There's a more visceral connection to the stories.
"You don't perform these songs, you tell the stories."
Mattea has recorded 17 albums and has charted more than 30 singles on the Billboard hot country charts.
This total includes the number one hits Goin' Gone, Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses, Come From The Heart and Burnin' Old Memories, with 12 additional top 10 singles.
About six years ago, Mattea started to edge away from her country music roots to a more acoustic/celtic/folk sound.
Coal came out in 2008 and is the first release on her own Captain Potato label.
It was announced in December that it will be in the shortlist of five nominees for the Grammy awards in the traditional folk section.
"It's been a filling in of a musical gap, a missing piece for me," Mattea explains.
"I grew up hearing Appalachian music, but not singing much of it. There was no-one in my world to educate me about it.
"So I'm reclaiming the music of my place and my people and hopefully integrating it into my own deal. It's been challenging and exciting."
With Coal having been nominated for a Grammy and her obvious emotional connection with mining communities, I wonder if there could be further albums with a mining theme.
"Well, I have some ideas about the next album, but it'll probably take this year to flesh them out.
"I love roots music, though, and the stripping away of a lot of layers, sonically, after years of recording and performing with a bigger band.
"It's like jumping off a musical cliff in some ways, but it's incredibly freeing as well," she enthuses.
Mattea appears to have moved away from her country music roots over the last few years, but does she recognise this and was it an intentional step?
"I came to country music from a folk and bluegrass background," she says, "but I've always had wide-ranging tastes.
"I've explored some of the roots of country, folk and bluegrass over recent years, but it seems like a natural evolution to me.
"I do hear the more traditional country sound in this record, I can be objective about that, but probably not much else.
"I guess I can say that I'll probably be moving towards roots music more and more."
After the commercial and artistic success of Coal, we can only wait to see where her musical journey leads her next.
But, in the meantime, Coal is there to be enjoyed and appreciated, both as a fine piece of music but also as a testament to the culture and hardships of the mining communities of West Virginia and of similar communities all over the world.
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