While it's true that Kathy Mattea lives primarily in Nashville, Tenn., these days, her roots in West Virginia are clearly visible.
The 53-year-old singer from small Cross Lanes, W.Va., paid tribute to her heritage in her 2008 album "Coal," which featured songs about coal mining. She returns to the hills of the Mountain State with "Calling Me Home."
"I made 'Coal' after this great big mine disaster in West Virginia. I didn't know them, I had never been to that part of the state, but it really affected me," Mattea said in an interview with the Mirror shortly before Christmas.
Kathy Mattea returns to her roots in West Virginia with the album 'Calling Me Home.'
"I channeled all of this emotion into ['Coal']. And it changed my life."
Mattea will bring her tour for "Calling Me Home," which was released in September, to Eisenhower Auditorium, University Park, at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 1.
Mattea first gained fame in the 1980s and '90s as a country star, with hits such as "Goin' Gone," "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses" and "Walking Away a Winner."
If you go
Who: Kathy Mattea
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 1
Where: Eisenhower Auditorium, Penn State University Park campus
Tickets: $40 for adults, $31 for ages 18 and younger and $19 for Penn State University Park Students
"She started out very strong as a country music artist, but she's kind of taken some risks in doing this kind of folk- style music," said Laura Sullivan, director of marketing at Eisenhower Auditorium.
Mattea's switch to bluegrass and the Appalachian sound gives the venue a chance to toe the waters of a new genre.
"It's kind of our first experience with a folk and roots music kind of artist," Sullivan said. "We haven't really done that [genre] of music in the past, so we're kind of stepping into that area to see if there will be a response from our audience."
"Calling Me Home," which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard bluegrass album charts, contains both traditional Appalachian songs and new songs about the Appalachians, Mattea said.
"Some [songs] are old and some are new; it's kind of a mix," she said. "I didn't write any of these myself. I was looking to celebrate Appalachian music and Appalachian culture. One of the unique things in Appalachian culture is that it's one of the last places where generations of people live on the same piece of land.
"My mom and dad knew every inch of the mountains around where they grew up. And that's a unique phenomenon."
Mattea says those with roots in West Virginia cling to those roots for life. And the music on "Calling Me Home" has had a big effect on some of those listening.
"There's so many people who have had to leave that area, to make a living. But they still consider themselves West Virginians," she explained.
"I've had people walk up to me in the lobby after the show and burst into tears and say, 'Thank you for singing my life.' And that's taken me aback."
But she sees sharing this music as something she needs to do.
"I do feel like there's a sense of service for me in this music," Mattea said. "I feel like what I can do for the culture and musically is bring these songs to a new generation. And some of this music is really edgy, and I feel like people might be more accepting of it coming from someone they know."
One artist that she has brought to more mainstream attention with "Coal" and "Calling Me Home" is bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens, a native of southern West Virginia. Dickens, who died in 2011, was an activist and socially conscious performer during the folk music revival of the 1960s, Mattea said.
Mattea covered Dickens' "Black Lung" on "Coal" and does a take on the late singer's "West Virginia, My Home" on "Calling Me Home."
"My biggest fear was that after being on a more commercial track for so long that I wouldn't be able to sing [Appalachian music] and sound sincere," Mattea said. "One of the really great things that happened to me is that my accountant came to one of my shows and came up to me afterward and said, 'Who is Hazel Dickens, and where can I hear more?' And that's what it's all about."
Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.