Kathy Mattea grew up in small-town West Virginia, but well into her adult years the folk music of her home region never fully resonated with her.
Mattea spent more than two decades caught up in a busy commercial career that twice brought her recognition as Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year.
But in her late 40s the singer, who makes her Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State debut Friday in a concert focused on songs from her recent album Calling Me Home, found the bridge to the music of her roots because of the Sago Mine disaster.
"I was just torn up about it, and I was shocked at how torn up I was about it. I'd randomly burst into tears for these people that I'd never met," she said.
A friend suggested she process her grief through music.
"And I thought, well, maybe that's what I'll do with all these feelings that I have that I don't understand," she recalled. "I'll just make a record about coal mining, and then I'll get it out of my system."
Her first step toward discovering the vast trove of Appalachian roots music became her Grammy-nominated 2008 release, Coal.
The experience of selecting the music and recording the CD changed her life, Mattea said.
"It was like finding some new chunk of music that had been missing," she said, "so I wanted to make this [follow-up] record [Calling Me Home] as a deepening of that exploration."
Listen to my interview with Mattea, which includes a sample of music from Calling Me Home.
Read my feature article about the singer.
Calling Me Home gathers songs of bravery, pride, joy and grief that speak of life in the world's oldest mountains.
Two-thirds of the songs are by four women: Kentucky-born Jean Ritchie, often called "The Mother of Folk," plus Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard and Laurie Lewis. The album also features "Gone, Gonna Rise Again," a song written by State College native Si Kahn.
While her concert showcases songs from Calling Me Home, it also includes music from Coal and a selection of her radio hits, such as "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses," "Goin' Gone" and the Grammy-winning "Where've You Been?"
A discussion among Mattea and interested audience members follows the concert. Artistic Viewpoints is not offered before the performance.