So does Bernie Sanders: We've always had a good impression of country music star Kathy Mattea.
Check that! Our good impression was formed some years ago when we first watched this YouTube tape.
On the tape, Mattea joins Suzy Bogguss in singing Teach Your Children, the Graham Nash anthem which, among other possible constructions, urges us people to learn from each other in spite of apparent differences.
Appropriately for current purposes, the Mattea/Bogguss performance took place at the Grand Ole Opry, in 1994. We especially like it for the obvious pleasure the two women take, all through their performance, from singing with each other.
Interviews with Mattea are widely featured during Ken Burns' 16-hour film, Country Music, which debuted on PBS over the past two weeks. We'll admit it—we didn't know how big a star Mattea was until we checked her bio after watching the series.
As a musical genre, country music is remarkably invisible to those of us who live in or around those famous "eastern/bicoastal elites." For ourselves, we owned albums by Doc Watson—even this Folkways album, The Watson Family—before we arrived in college as a freshman in the fall of 1965.
But even we, with our hipper-than-thou understanding of the full sweep of American culture, didn't know how big Mattea was until we read her bio at several places last week. The Ken Burns site tells us this:
Kathy Mattea is among the most commercially successful and respected female country artists of her era, infusing 1980s country with a fresh, stripped-down style and a unique blend of traditional country roots and attention to the stories being told. Growing up outside Charleston, West Virginia, Kathy’s tastes were eclectic.In one of the coming-to-Nashville stories Burns loves, Mattea advanced from museum tour guide to two-time top female vocalist. Warning! All these references to Top 10 and No. 1 hits are references to "the country charts," whose contents may escape the notice of the bulk of our own liberal tribe.
Her love of traditional country was solidified after she left West Virginia University and took a job as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. It broadened when she started earning extra money singing on demo tapes for songwriters pitching their tunes on Music Row.
After signing a recording contract with Mercury, Kathy teamed with independent producer Allen Reynolds. Their creative alliance resulted in hit singles for more than a decade, including “Love at the Five and Dime” (1986)—her first Top 10 hit on the country charts, peaking at No. 3—and her biggest No. 1 success, “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” which captured the 1988 CMA award for Best Single. Mattea cemented her star status by becoming CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year in 1989 and again in 1990. Her Top 10 hit “Where’ve You Been,” co-written by husband Jon Vezner and Don Henry, earned Kathy the 1990 GRAMMY Award for Best Female Country Vocal. She won again at the GRAMMYs in 1993 with her Gospel-influenced Christmas album, Good News.
As usual, we have a great point! As we watched the eight episodes of the Burns film, it occurred to us, again and again, that much of America doesn't know the stars, or the story, of the sprawling part of American culture known as country music.
Connie Smith? George Jones? Who the Joe Hill are they?
Also, what's the story behind Merle Haggard? Even this: Who the heck was the Carter Family? Can anyone name their names?
For many people held captive by the dominant culture of those eastern and bicoastal elites, these names, and these stories, will be unknown, perhaps a bit foreign. They will sometimes be derided as silly, although they form a very large part of the cultural framework of a very large part of the nation.
A very large part of this big sprawling nation would know Smith and Jones, and even Dottie West! Indeed, it occurred to us, as we watched the Burns film, that he was describing a large part of the culture of the current Trump voter—of those nagging people, The Others, who we liberals can't seem to bring under control, no matter how patiently we try to teach them how to vote, think and assess.
We don't know the stories of a one-time renegade like Haggard, or even of someone as thoroughly engaging and presentable as Mattea. To cite one more example, we ourselves didn't know that Mattea released an album entitled Coal in 2008. We continue the Burns bio to its completion:
After a mining disaster in her home state killed twelve miners in 2006, she came out with Coal (2008, produced by Marty Stuart), filled with songs about mining life and its repercussions, as a tribute, she said, “to my place and my people.”But aren't those people everyone's people? For better or worse, and perhaps understandably, not necessarily, no.
Born: June 21, 1959; Hometown: Cross Lanes, West Virginia
For Mattea, a native of West Virginia, coal is part of a family tradition. When the album was released, USA Today provided a bit of background:
MANSFIELD (4/6/08): Kathy Mattea considered herself a grandchild of coal. Both the singer's grandfathers—one an Italian immigrant, the other of Welsh descent—had worked the West Virginia mines, but Mattea thought she had a generation's distance as she started choosing material for Coal, her new album of mining songs.Both her grandfathers worked in the mines. This is a part of the culture of country music which continues to play a role in our deeply troubled politics today.
"I expected a set of stories," says Mattea, 48. "What I found was a connection to my own history, my own family, my own people."
Mattea, who placed 15 consecutive top 10 singles on the country charts in the mid-'80s and early '90s, had her best-known hits with storytelling songs such as Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses and Where've You Been. But the tales in songs such as Coal Tattoo and Red-Winged Blackbird struck closer to home.
"I thought I'd be slightly detached," she says. "Instead, it came from the inside out. That was the piece I didn't expect, to feel so much a sense that it was my place to tell the story. This record, it just reached out and took me."
We hope you'll give yourself the pleasure of watching Mattea and Bogguss sing Teach Your Children. It occurred to us, as we watched Burns' film, that there are things we liberals can learn from the history the film relates, even though it's plainly too late to stop our nation from sliding into the sea, as it's currently doing.
In 2008, Mattea recorded an album called Coal. According to the leading authority on her life, she followed with "a second album of bluegrass-influenced and primarily coal mining-themed songs, Calling Me Home." This makes us think of a very wise thing we saw a major politician do just a few years ago.
Is there any way out of our current morass, one which has formed around Donald J. Trump? We'll guess that there pretty much isn't, but it seems to us that there's a lot our own tribe might profitably think about in the sixteen hours of material presented in the somewhat bowdlerized Burns film.
We'll pursue that idea all week. Tomorrow, a pol sets a good example.
Tomorrow: Bernie Sanders talks coal—and the Okie from Muskogee