Kathy Mattea, "Calling Me Home" (Sugar Hill)
The album opens with a forlorn fiddle, feverish and fidgety until it finally settles on a D.
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With that, the tone is set.
Bluegrass rarely gets more bluesy than on "Calling Me Home." This is mountain music, sorrowful and restless and struggling to make sense of its surroundings and the way they've changed.
In 11 well-chosen covers, West Virginia native Kathy Mattea sings eloquently about the complicated relationship between the people of Appalachia and the land they've long loved but also abused. It's a place where the roots are deep, and the scars are, too.
Residents of the region have often sung about such things, but seldom better than Mattea does here. Her commanding alto gracefully bears the weighty subject matter, whether she's singing about wildlife or the afterlife.
Most of these songs are also about coal, to one degree or another. Included are tunes by revered mountain music songwriters Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard and Jean Ritchie, along with fine contributions from such contemporary artists as Larry Cordle and Laurie Lewis. Stuart Duncan and Bryan Sutton lead a stellar cast of musicians backing Mattea.
While the album grabs the listener from that first fiddle lick from Duncan, the finish is also something to savor. A trio of concluding tunes serves as a lovely benediction by extolling the beauty of faith, the earth and music.
Check this out: Deathbed songs can be tough to pull off, but "Agate Hill" is a splendid spiritual that benefits from Alison Krauss' divine harmony vocals.