Kathy Mattea Flies Like a 'Pretty Bird'

"Tell Me What You Ache For" Kathy Mattea sings, but the songs on Pretty Bird suggest the pain is still too strong for her to do so.

Pretty Bird
Kathy Mattea

Captain Potato / Thirty Tigers

7 September 2018

Greil Marcus once offered a serious meditation on the connections between Bobby Gentry's monster 1967 hit "Ode to Billie Joe" and the American reaction to the war in Vietnam. He equated the casual indifference of a family watching the news on television and witnessing death and destruction to the nonchalant detachment of a family eating dinner and discussing the suicide of their daughter's boyfriend. While Gentry may not have concurred with Marcus' theory, she noted that many listeners were more concerned with the mystery of what she and Billie Joe threw off Tallahatchie Bridge, which was not her intent, than the heart of the song that was the indifference of the family to the narrator's pain.

Well, years have come and gone since we heard the song about Billie Joe. Singer Kathy Mattea covers it on her new record, Pretty Bird. Sure, it's a great song, but the cultural implications of what it means (or maybe more precisely, what Mattea expresses, have changed. The zeitgeist is different now. Mattea's sparse, acoustic rendition is somewhat self-contained. She accents words and syllables to emphasize their sounds rather than their meaning (especially the word "Tallahatchie"). Gentry's version looked outward at the coldness of other people. Mattea's looks inward at the narrator's sorrow, but she does so as a clinician. She does not sing with an ache. She just points it out. This aesthetic philosophy is true of the record as a whole.

This is the two-time Grammy Award-winning singer's first new album in six years. She suffered vocal problems and other issues that prevented her from recording. While she was considered a country artist, and even once won the Country Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year honor, she's always displayed strong folk and bluegrass roots. This album fits in the modern folk tradition. She offers renditions of Hazel Dickens, Dougie MacLean, and Mary Gauthier tunes and a cover of the traditional "He Moves Through the Fair". The Gentry song itself is done folk style with a minimum of orchestration led by a solo acoustic guitar lead.

Mattea sings the cut "Pretty Bird" unaccompanied. Her solo performance has a formal grace. One appreciates Mattea's ability to annunciate and flutter when the song calls for it, but like the creature from which the tune gets its title, the track's beauty can only be appreciated from a distance as it flies away. Like her version of "Billie Joe", her voice does not inhabit the material as much as it documents what is happening. That's Mattea's greatest strength on the album, but it is also her biggest flaw. The singer offers tasteful aural confections, but she rarely makes one feel.

Consider her version Jesse Winchester's rueful "Little Glass of Wine". Winchester wryly bemoaned the mixed blessing of the grape. The original expressed that the pain of just living needed required one to find solace in drink. Wine, like the aging process, gives one the ability to get on but at a cost. "You're warm on my lips, warm as a tear," Mattea sings straight. It suggests stoicism, not the anesthesia of alcohol.

The most affecting track is Mattea's version of Joan Osborne's "St. Teresa" that concerns a drug-addicted mother living on the streets. Mattea's voice shakes as she documents the situation. The narrator upset by what she sees. Osborne's rendition made one feel for the protagonist more than the teller of the tale. The variation between the approaches two are telling.

Emily Dickinson famously wrote, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes." Mattea has been through a lot over the past half dozen years. It's good she's back, but she's not the same as she once was. "Tell Me What You Ache For" she sings on a song by that name. The songs on Pretty Bird suggests she's not able to say. The ache is still too strong.






Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.


Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.


Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.