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Country star Kathy Mattea draws from Charlotte's musical pool

"My world is centering around Charlotte. It's center of the universe. Who knew?" laughs two-time Grammy winner Kathy Mattea, referring to her musical connections to the Queen City. And apparently, these current collaborations could possibly be the first of many.

Mattea, who has been named Female Vocalist of the Year twice by the Country Music Association, is currently working on the follow-up to her 2000 release, The Innocent Years, with Charlotte producer Ed Cash. As it turns out, it was another Charlottean also working with Mattea who recommended the producer -- percussionist Jim Brock, who the singer uses the word "amazing" to describe.

Although Mattea's working relationship with Cash is a relatively new one -- this is their first project together -- Brock has been playing and touring with her for almost three years now.

He explains how it all came about. "I played for Janis Ian for a good number of years, and Kathy knew the records that I made with her, and also caught two or three shows. I remember one in particular when, after the show, Kathy walked up to me and said, 'I want you in my band.' I was extremely flattered, and, as it turned out, she really meant it.

"I remember Beth [Chorneau, his wife] and I were at the beach doing something we rarely get to do -- relaxing -- and I decided to check my answering machine," he continues. "I was surprised to hear Kathy's message. She was in a small bind because she had a show coming up in a couple of days, and she needed a drummer."

As it turned out, Brock wasn't able to play at that particular show because he was already booked to be playing elsewhere with another artist, but he did return the phone call and expressed interest for future gigs.

"A week later, I was learning the show," he relates. "Bless her heart, she trusted me enough to hire me with no rehearsals. I remember the first show. We were in Minneapolis playing to 20,000 people. I had just met the band and walked on cold, but it all seemed to click from the first note."

During his travels with Mattea, Brock had the opportunity to share some material with the singer that was produced by Cash. Mattea really enjoyed the recordings and when she started to look for a producer for her new album, Brock suggested Cash. "They hooked up, and it worked out great," he states.

According to Brock, another Charlotte area musician, Mark Stallings, is playing piano and organ on the record as well. Discussing how the new album is coming along, Mattea enthuses, "It's amazing. We're almost done and the record is starting to gel into an entity. That's always the really exciting part, when it stops being this thing that you're working on and it starts to take shape."

Mattea, who's often noted for her eclectic musical influences, says the new material certainly has a Celtic influence. "I don't hold myself up to be some Celtic traditionalist or have some sort of expertise on that kind of music, but it's definitely the place where my music intersects with Celtic music."

The singer expects the album will be released mid-summer, and it will be her first record for her new label Narada, which is a subsidiary of Virgin Records. Mattea was signed with Mercury Records for 17 years, and she talks about making the switch to another label. "There had been some changes in the industry, the label sold, and all my champions had left. Their sense of priority was a little different and I just began to feel like what they needed from me and what I wanted to do were two different things.

"So I walked in and said, 'You know I love you guys, you've been so good to me and I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you. But if I stay, we'll hate each other, so we should agree to part company while we still respect and like each other. After that, I didn't know what to expect [in going out and trying to find another label]. But within a month, I had another record deal and it was through the Virgin guys in Los Angeles. They signed me to the Narada label. It just happened to be that they were looking for someone like me and I was looking for someone like them. The timing was just perfect. It was a confirmation for me that by asking out of my contract and saying what was the truth instead of waiting for the other shoe to drop, I put the timing in place for this to happen."

Along with Brock, Mattea will also be accompanied by the Charlotte Symphony Pops for her upcoming performances in town. Performing with an orchestra is something the singer has been doing for the past several years, and she says it's an experience that truly complements her music. "There are so many colors to an orchestra, and it's just another whole layer on top of what we do," she says.

Mattea admits the shows in Charlotte are part of a few isolated dates, but she does plan to tour this fall in support of the new album. She also hints at the possibility of being joined by more Charlotte folks. "Jim is planning on coming along for the tour, and maybe some other Charlotte musicians as well," she reveals. "We're talking to a few people, so we'll see."

Brock offers his opinion on working with Mattea. "To this day, I feel privileged to work with Kathy, because she surrounds herself with great musicians and, above all, great people."

Kathy Mattea will perform with the Charlotte Symphony Pops on Friday and Saturday, April 12-13, at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Tickets range from $15-$55. Call the Symphony at 704-972-2000 for more details. *

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