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Pop: Country mania

Country singer Kathy Mattea has what many Nashville hopefuls can only dream of: a clutch of awards and the friendship of President Clinton. But it was to these indifferent shores that she came when the pressures of success got too much. Why? Interview by Jasper Rees
Next Saturday, BBC2 turns the entire evening over to country music. For one night only it will be virtually indistinguishable from Country Music Television, the MTV of twang. And yet, for all country's recent modernisation, doubts remain over whether Nashville's project to subjugate Britain with barrages like this will ever come good. Most of the multi- platinum hat acts aren't prepared to suffer the indignity of going back to promotional square one. Vince Gill and Reba McEntire, both of whom practically own the best vocalist statuettes awarded every year by the Country Music Assocation, are virtually unknown here. So are last year's winners George Strait and Patty Loveless. Historically, it's the left- field songwriters who do best over here: the likes of Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett, Texan outsiders who understand irony and have managed to avoid sounding processed.

So, for Kathy Mattea, who's neither Texan nor a songwriter, the odds ought to be stacked against a British breakthrough. However, she has one of the most distinctive voices in Nashville, is a great pal of President Clinton, performed at his first inauguration and may well return to the White House on Monday for his second. Great patronage indeed. Yet, as she says: "There's always been this sense in the record company that people here would like what I do, but we've never really been able to figure out how to connect with it."

When she first did concerts in London in the late Eighties, she played the Mean Fiddler [capacity: not many] and didn't even fill it. But her anonymity in this country should not last beyond the screening of SongRoads, a 50-minute documentary on BBC2's Country Night, on 25 January.

The film chronicles what's called her "musical friendship" with Dougie MacLean, a Scottish musician whose name you needn't feel ashamed of not recognising. His most high-profile work is in soundtracks. The Last of the Mohicans and BBC Scotland's A Mug's Game - but he operates very successfully below the media line on that subterranean level of fame known as word- of-mouth (or its modern equivalent, word-of-'net). Mattea was first seduced when she heard MacLean on the radio in 1988, and when he passed through Nashville she made damn sure she met him after the show. A relationship promptly developed, based partly on the common gene pool of country and Celtic music, but also on Mattea's evident craving for a kind of musical detoxification.

Coming from the industry's Big Smoke, the town where people go to the office to make music, she seems to have instinctively viewed MacLean, who certainly has an air about him of blue-eyed priestly purity, as a kind of shaman who could help her steer a path through the sea of mounting commercial pressures. He clearly jogged a dim memory of music's atavistic role, when it helped you to make merry rather than millions. "As my manager says, `The problem, Kathy, is that God didn't mean for us to package music on little plastic discs and sell it. God meant for us to sit in rooms and play it.' That's something that everybody who's successful in a commercial way has to struggle with."

Mattea came to Nashville from West Virginia, one of those modest American states that tends to mind its own business. "You can name on two hands the celebrities from West Virginia," she says. "I'm sort of the token currently famous musician from there." Her veins pulse with a choice cocktail of Piemontese and Welsh blood, but her predominant musical memory is of "hearing people play Celtic music on hammer dulcimers". She sponged up music in all its forms, in the choir, the church folk group, the local garage outfit. Later, her college band would send off tapes to Nashville, and the standard rejection slip usually included a handwritten footnote saying "We think the girl singer is good". She dropped her engineering major with two years to run, aged 19, to go to Nashville, where she leapt through the usual hoops of hardship, odd-jobs and demoing and ended up with a recording contract "five years to the day of the day I pulled into town", apparently "about average".

In an industry not fixated on youth, success came quickly. She won consecutive CMA awards, Nashville's Oscars, in 1989 and 1990, but recalls what should have been a period of creative flowering as one of disillusionment and overwork that eventually forced her to have surgery on her vocal chords. "I still felt uncomfortable at times. I had a real hard time handling success. I felt I didn't deserve it. Even as it's happening to you, you know it's a transient thing." Success fed a worry that she would be obliged to produce the same rabbit out of the cowboy hat. "You don't want it to change the way you approach what you do. I didn't want to try to make a record to be female vocalist of the year again." The week after her first award, she flew to Scotland for the first time, threw on a woolly jumper and lost herself in acoustic jamming.

It's tempting to take the story of SongRoads with a pinch of cynicism. In the cultural exchange, the best that MacLean seems to have got out of it is an education in the business side of music. The documentary indulges Mattea's hopelessly sentimental view of Scotland (easily the most toe- curling moments are the videoesque shots of MacLean lipsyncing to his songs on the Hebridean coastline), prompting a suspicion that this is mere musical tourism. "It was never that calculated," she insists. "I think it all comes from a gut place. It felt so real, and it was really about how we both love sitting with guitars and playing music. I think there was something really primal. It felt much simpler than all the other things going on around me."

Her occasional collaboration with MacLean can only make her more marketable to the unconverted. But the effects have been personally beneficial, urging her to make further trips out of her own musical landscape, accompanied by a rich, adaptable, highly trained voice with which, post-operation, she is "singing better than I ever have". She has since dabbled in bluegrass, won a Grammy with a rootsy, gospel-tinged Christmas album called Good News, and led the retreat from country's traditional homophobic stance by spearheading the Red Hot + Country album and concerts in support of Aids awareness. And at the 11th attempt, in her 18th year in Tennessee, she's produced probably her freshest album. In the ceaseless pursuit of creative novelty, she recorded half of Love Travels in New York, and it satisfyingly fuses a cluster of influences picked up on her travels. Dougie MacLean's is only one of them.

She has another influential friend now. Four years ago she played at President Clinton's inauguration, and may be back for the encore next week. "I was invited to attend the inaugural this time, but I don't know whether I'm going to be playing. They book that stuff at the last minute." The President obviously has a bit of pash on Mattea, because he invited her (plus one or two others) to dinner just before Christmas. "There were 250 people and he asked to be seated next to me. There we were chatting away about everything from American history to `Does he get to sleep till noon tomorrow?"' This non-musical friendship may have something to do with the fact that they both made it all the way to the top from backwoods states, but Clinton wouldn't be the first fan to fall under the sway of Mattea's long lovely face (the Piedmontese gene a clear victor over the Welsh one).

Two years ago she played in a Women of Country gig on the south lawn of the White House. Afterwards the President invited her, the band and the crew into his private quarters for a drink. "And not only that. He had just spent the day giving speeches with the Secretary of Education that had a lyric from a song of mine called `Seeds': `We're all just seeds in God's hands.' And he gave us a tour for an hour and a half of a lot of rooms that had real historical significance. Like the Lincoln bedroom." But not, please note, the Clinton bedroom n

`SongRoads' is screened Sat 25 Jan 10.45pm, BBC2; `Love Travels' is released Tues 27 Jan on Mercury; `The Dougie MacLean Collection' is released Mon 20 Jan on Putumayo; Kathy Mattea will tour the UK from 7 Apr