An organic journey: Coal activism draws vocalist Kathy Mattea back to country music

Every time Kathy Mattea goes on stage to sing or speak about the impact of coal in America, she thinks about her journey from a self-described “chick country singer” to an environmental activist.

Mattea rose to fame in the 1980s with country hits such as “18 Wheels and a Dozen Roses” and “Goin’ Gone.” Since then, she’s moved through bluegrass and Celtic genres to land back at her country roots with a bit of activism thrown in.

Her 2008 album “Coal” was her first foray into using her songs to highlight the heritage of her native West Virginia. The album’s impetus was the Sago mine accident that killed 12 West Virginia coal miners in 2006. She continues to sing about coal country on her latest release, “Calling Me Home.”

In a recent interview, Mattea said her Feb. 1 performance at Eisenhower Auditorium would include a mix of new and old material.

“If I do my job right, the show is a journey musically,” she said. “There’s a bit of an emotional arc to the evening, and I hope that folks have at least one good belly laugh and one tear in their eyes at different points during the show.”

Mattea also is scheduled to give the lecture “My Coal Journey” at the Penn State Forum luncheon series Jan. 31. The talk is a mixture of family stories and information she gathered from visiting mines throughout Appalachia.

Though she’s now known as a musician and an environmentalist, Mattea said she never thought her career would take that direction when she started singing.

“It developed in such an organic way; suddenly this thing came out,” she said. It’s very interesting to override the voices in my head that are like, ‘What do you think you’re doing? You’re just a chick singer.’ ”

Mattea hopes that her music and speaking engagements can help foster discussion around issues related to clean and renewable energy sources.

“The idea of how music can change the world, how music can help us to see things in a different way, how we can facilitate dialogue and civil discourse … I want to bring it forward because I think it’s really important,” she said. “It’s getting harder and harder to have civil discourse around these issues.”

Kathy Mattea will present “My Coal Journey” at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 31, The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel, 215 Innovation Blvd., State College. Her “Calling Me Home” concert will start at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 1 at Eisenhower Auditorium, University Park. Visit www.pennstateforum.psu.edu/2013/01/kathy-mattea.html or www.cpa.psu.edu , or call 863-0255 for more information.