When Kathy Mattea reached her 50s, there were some nights on stage she sang better than ever. But on other nights, she couldn’t hit notes in songs she’d been singing for decades.
It was a frightening time. The two-time Grammy Award winner wondered if she’d lost the voice she’d used so empathetically in songs such as “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” “Walking Away a Winner” and, a ballad sure to summon tears, “Where’ve You Been.”
“It was like being in a dark room and not being able to find my out,” Mattea said from her home in Nashville, Tennessee, ahead of her upcoming performance in Baton Rouge on Wednesday, July 3, at the Manship Theatre. “I knew I had to let go somehow, but I didn’t even know what to let go of.”
Mattea’s vocal difficulties compelled her to contemplate her career’s end.
“I made friends with that fear that was always present, the fear that I wasn’t going to be able to sing anymore,” she said. “To find my way back to singing, I had to face that possibility.”
Mattea also remembered a conversation she’d had years before with Tony Bennett, the jazz and pop vocalist who is still singing beautifully in his 90s.
“We were at an event and both of us wound up in a corner watching the proceedings,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I heard you sing tonight and I know how old you are. You’re amazing. How do you do it?’ He smiled and said, ‘My voice isn’t what it once was, but it’s a lot better than it was a few years ago. I found a teacher and I’m working with him.’ ”
Following Bennett’s example, Mattea began studying with jazz singer and vocal teacher Judi Donaghy Vinar.
“I thought, ‘All right. If Tony Bennett can sing in his 70s and 80s, I can sing in my 50s,’ " Mattea said. "I found a great teacher and I dug in. I kept keep fighting.”
While she studied with the Minneapolis-based Vinar via Skype, Mattea and her longtime guitarist and collaborator, Bill Cooley, explored music she wouldn’t normally sing.
“Jazz songs, old Appalachian songs, straight country songs and folk songs,” she said.
Much of that material found its way onto Mattea’s first album in six years, “Pretty Bird.” Released last year, the project includes her interpretations of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” Jesse Winchester’s “Little Glass of Wine” and former Baton Rouge resident Mary Gauthier’s wrenching ballad, “Mercy Now.”
“These songs, they’re like friends who helped me through the storm,” Mattea said. “Because I spent so much time with each one, I know them very well. It was a different way of coming to an album.”
Mattea admired “Mercy Now,” but she had doubts about her ability to handle Gauthier’s searing lyrics.
“I listened to that song all the time, but it was so different from anything I’d ever done,” she said. “Bill and I worked on it every week. I took it to my voice teacher and worked on it with her. But it fell flat every time I sang it. Finally, I looked at Bill and said, ‘Not every song is for every singer. We’ll put it on the shelf.’ ”
A few months after giving up on “Mercy Now,” Mattea and Cooley gave it another try. Suddenly, it worked.
“Bill looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know what happened, Kathy, but whatever wasn’t happening before, you’ve got it now.’ And Bill made a beautiful gospel-tinged arrangement of the song. I sing it like a prayer.”
Mattea has another Louisiana connection in bassist Eric Frey. Formerly a member of the Lafayette-based bands Red Stick Ramblers and the Revelers, Frey moved to Nashville to be a session musician. He’ll be in Mattea’s band Wednesday at the Manship Theatre, her third appearance at the downtown Baton Rouge venue.
“I love the Manship Theatre,” she said. “I’m thrilled to be back.”
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 3
Manship Theatre, 100 Lafayette Street