Longtime friends Kathy Mattea and Suzy Bogguss are teaming up for a tour, titled Together at Last, that features them not with their own bands, but together, throughout the night, sharing the stage with no other musicians. It comes to the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, June 4.
“The first few nights I was like, ‘You mean they’re going to give me a paycheck for this?,’ ” says Mattea. ” ‘I’ve just been telling stories and hanging out with my girlfriend.’ It’s just so sweet, and we have similar enough tastes that our fans enjoy the other person’s music as well. So it’s been a wonderful thing.”
Mattea, who grew up in West Virginia, and Bogguss, who hails from Illinois, both moved to Nashville to be part of the city’s music scene and began releasing albums in the ’80s. They sang together on a Grammy-nominated cover of Graham Nash’s “Teach Your Children” on the 1994 charity compilation Red, Hot + Country (see video below). But Mattea is not sure when they first became friends.
“I don’t even remember how it started, but we started staying in touch years ago,” Mattea said. “She would call me and check in every once on a while, then I would call her. It was just nice to have one really good friend who does what you do for a living, who understands some of the more subtle things about it.
“We drifted apart, but we stayed in touch. We were both working really hard for a few years. But we would go over (to Bogguss’ house), I’d walk in and she would put Ben (Bogguss’ son) in my lap and hand me a bottle and say, ‘I’m finishing dinner. Feed Ben.’ Then later, I’d go over and he’d be like, ‘Come up to my room and read me a story.’ We’ve just always maintained this connection and we’ve talked about doing a tour together for a long time, but the timing was never right. I’d have a record that just came out that I was having to promote, or she’d be doing some other project.”
During the pandemic, Bogguss starting doing weekly streams on Facebook, and invited Mattea to be a guest on one.
“We talked on the phone and worked up the few songs we were going to do,” said Mattea. “It’s like a 45-minute show of talking and singing. We got together like 30 minutes before, and worked out all the parts, and did it. And I looked at her and said, ‘You know, I’d get on a plane to go do this. This was really, really fun.’ And she’s like, ‘Well, you want to?’ ”
Most “Songwriters in the Round”-style shows are one-time things. But since this is a tour, the songs have evolved in a way that isn’t always possible for this kind of show.
“Suzy pushed me,” said Mattea. “She was like, ‘All right, you need to come up with a (guitar) solo for blah, blah, blah.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll go home and work on that.’ And she was like, ‘Okay, I have a solo for this. You have to tell me if you like it or not.’ So she subtly pushed me to do some things onstage that I might not normally think to do.
“Both of us are solid rhythm guitar players, but neither one of us are soloists, so it’s not always perfect. But our audiences have come to appreciate that. We’re trying to stretch ourselves a little bit. And it’s not about perfection. If one of us messes up a guitar solo, I’ll look at her or she’ll look at me and say, ‘You want another run at it?’ And we’ll start all over again. I think the audience can tell we’re not being too precious about it.
“The other thing that works well for us is, our voices are in different registers. So the harmonies flow very naturally. When I’m singing high harmony, it’s easy for her. And sometimes she sings low harmony: she’s got really good range. And the fun thing now is, we’ve settled in enough that we know where the parts sit and so we can lean in a little more. Even Doug (Crider), her husband, who does sound for us, he’s like, ‘I can hear that y’all are really starting to glue into each other’s phrasing and sensibilities about the more subtle ways of doing the song.’ ”
Both Mattea and Bogguss have had hits with songs written by the late Nanci Griffith: Mattea with “Love at the Five and Dime” in 1986, and Bogguss with “Outbound Plane” (co-written by Griffith and Tom Russell) in 1991. They have been doing both songs at these shows, as well as “Gulf Coast Highway,” co-written by Griffith, James Hooker and Danny Flowers.
“When we did the first online show,” said Mattea, “I was like, ‘We both have hits that Nanci wrote, so we should do that.’ And I had been pulling out songs and playing around with them since early in the pandemic. Songs that I would never do otherwise, that I had loved but just never picked up. And I’ve always loved ‘Gulf Coast Highway.’ So I said, ‘Let’s work on “Gulf Coast” and let’s do this. And we’ll do a little Nanci tribute.’ So we did and we knew that her health wasn’t good. So we just sort of spoke about how much respect we have for her and stuff. Little did we think that by the time we headed out on the road to do this, she would not be here.
“So it feels great to bring some focus to Nanci and to also speak about …. Nanci was such a unique songwriter and doing her songs, you get a little taste of her quirky phrasing, and interpretation, and melody and lyric. So we get to talk a little bit about that, and how grateful we are.”
In September, Mattea took over as host for the syndicated, eclectic but roots-oriented concert series “Mountain Stage,” which is heard nationally on NPR stations but mostly recorded in Charleston, W.V.
“It’s hard work and fun at the same time,” said Mattea. “And it checks all the boxes for what my values are. It helps promote West Virginia culture and Appalachian culture in a way that is not about the stereotypes. It helps support an institution (i.e., Mountain Stage itself) that’s out of my hometown, and it’s an institution that’s been really good to me over the years. So I get to give back. It uses my skill set and a completely different way. I get to swim around in a pond with all kinds of different musicians from the Mountain Stage Band, and sit in and do backup for some of the artists who use the band when they come in. So I get to be a harmony singer: make charts for songs and try to support somebody else.
“You know, there’s not a lot of live outlets for music that’s not mainstream — that’s not Beyoncé — anymore. So it gives a platform for music that is really rich, to be heard.”
It’s also satisfying, she says, to be the “facilitator” of something that has many moving parts and forces her to make changes on the fly.
I asked for an example or two.
“David Bromberg comes walking in,” Mattea says. “I’ve never met him. So he comes walking in for soundcheck and he says, ‘Kathy Mattea!’ I said, ‘David Bromberg! I can’t believe we’ve never met.’ He said, ‘Me neither. You want to do a duet with me tonight?’ I’m like, ‘Sure, whatever. Let’s do it.’
“We did ‘Tennessee Waltz,’ and he messed up and we had to start all over again. But you know, I’ve never sung with David Bromberg, so I’m just hanging on for dear life.
“Or, Cheryl Wheeler came a few weeks ago and she walks in and says, ‘You want to sing with me on “Further and Further,” ‘ which is a song of hers that I did. And the last time she was on, she asked me to sing it with her, and I did. I was like, ‘But we did that last time.’ And she’s like, ‘I know. But it’s so sweet.’ I’m like, ‘Sure.’
“Well, I don’t even know if I can do it in her key, and she throws me a verse, and I’m like, ‘All right, girl, I’m in.’ But she phrases it a little different than me. So the harmonies … I feel like I’m just trying to ride with her and enhance what she does. And also, I have sung it my way for so long … to go back and hear how that song lives for her, and to hear her original voice that wrote it, and remember the story she told me about it …
“It’s a real gift at this stage of my life to put so much energy into honoring someone else’s music. It’s really about love, at the end of the day. It’s loving on musicians and their music, and appreciating them.”
Juggling what she calls “three part-time jobs” — the shows with Bogguss, shows with her own band, and the Mountain Stage gig — Mattea has not released an album since Pretty Bird, in 2018, and does not have another one in the works. “But I squirrel away songs,” she said. “I don’t know when or if I’ll make another record, but I have a few ideas. And usually, if a record is meant to be made, it’ll show itself.
“But I tell you, I am hearing a lot of good songs and a lot of good songwriters: a lot of great musicians these days. And I feel as excited about music and inspired about music — more than I have in many years.”
Kathy Mattea and Suzy Bogguss will perform at the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway at 8 p.m. June 4. Visit ucpac.org.
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