Kathy Mattea: Facing the Future

On her new album “Coal,” Grammy-winning country singer Kathy Mattea
deeply mines her Appalachian roots. But her most personal work may be
her signature song “Where’ve You Been?” which has become a comforting
hymn for families of Alzheimer’s victims. Mattea is staring down the implications
of her own family history with intrepid acceptance and candor.


By Allan Richter

September 2008

Greeting friends after a summer performance in Morristown, New Jersey, a stop along her current “Moving Mountains” concert tour, the Grammy-winning country and folk singer Kathy Mattea caught up with an acquaintance. They had lost touch, and the friend pointed out his graying hair. “I’ve got a few streaks myself,” Mattea said, smiling and brushing her hand across a shock of silver among otherwise auburn shoulder-length locks.

Mattea’s candor isn’t reserved just for private moments among friends. Onstage and in the studio, honesty and humility, core ingredients in reaching audiences, have been hallmarks of her career, famously represented in her signature song “Where’ve You Been?” Mattea’s husband, singer-songwriter Jon Vezner, co-wrote the song with singer Don Henry in 1989 about Vezner’s grandparents.

The meaning of the title lyric changes as the song tracks a young couple to old age. The song, quietly operatic, embodies love realized, then worry and, finally, the blankness of a mind made feeble by advanced years. Mattea breathes into the song a haunting beauty and measured pace that captures its subjects’ six decades together.

The song won Grammy, Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music awards. In concert, it earns tearful standing ovations from an audience moved by Mattea’s, and perhaps their own, personal stake in its resonance: Mattea’s mother Ruth was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a decade after it was written; she died in 2005. Two of her mother’s sisters also became afflicted with the disease.

“I think one of the reasons the song works is because we didn’t try to make it about Alzheimer’s,” Vezner tells Energy Times. “We just told a true story. It never really occurred to us to be about Alzheimer’s. It made perfect sense afterwards.”

To help bring more funding for Alzheimer’s research and care, Mattea has lent her name, voice and image to the Alzheimer’s Association and to Abe’s Garden, a non-profit Alzheimer’s and dementia care facility planned in Nashville, where Mattea lives.

Abe’s Garden aims to become to Alzheimer’s what Sloan-Kettering is to cancer. “If we can get a handle on the front end of this a little better,” Mattea says, “we might be able to prevent suffering of not just the patients themselves but the families. It’s a family disease; it affects everyone in the family.”

Having campaigned extensively for AIDS research, Mattea is no stranger to activism. Of late, she is bringing attention to what environmentalists say are the ravages of coal mining through mountaintop removal, which uses explosives and heavy equipment to take off the tops of mountains and expose coal seams.

 “Coal,” Mattea’s newest album, strips away the country and harkens back to the West Virginia-bred singer’s Appalachian roots with cover songs that give voice to both the pride and dangers of mining. Both of Mattea’s grandfathers were miners and her mother worked for the local miners union. Mattea had been playing some of the songs privately when the 2006 Sago mine disaster in her home state killed a dozen miners and pushed the singer to bring the project to life. A Country Music Television review predicted that “Coal” could bring Mattea her third Grammy.

Mattea is acutely aware that her family history with Alzheimer’s means her own risk is heightened. She is gearing up not to fight the disease if it strikes, but to prepare to endure it as ably and with as much dignity as she can.

She takes care of her health, including her emotions. On visits to her childhood home to help her ailing mother, Mattea had to set aside tears and anguish. “I was kind of on duty,” she says. But she says she has learned to accept the darkest possibility and the grief she believes should come with it. Mattea spoke with Energy Times about those feelings and more in a tearful and sometimes self-revealing interview.

Energy Times: Your mother and two of her sisters—three of six sisters—have had Alzheimer’s. When did you realize this is something you have to be concerned about?

Kathy Mattea: Oh, I think layers of that realization hit me all the time. You know, I’ve thought a lot about it. I have no children, and I could very well wind up in the same boat. My husband is eight years older than me so it’s like, “Okay, I’ve got to get a plan together.” Part of why I’m so thrilled about Abe’s Garden is because it’s right down the street from where I live. So you know it’s like, “Okay, you need to get some stuff in place, some people to make some medical decisions.” I’m 49 now, so I figure I’ve got maybe 20 years, 10 to 20 years before I begin to see it manifest. Now is the time to start trolling for care.

ET: How do you approach diet and exercise to help ensure that you remain healthy in body and mind?

KM: A couple of months ago I saw one of those “10 things you can do to prevent Alzheimer’s” lists on the ’net. I realized I was doing all of them but one. And part of that is not really conscious; it’s just maybe an influence of my dad on me because my mom and her sisters didn’t really have much of an exercise program. My dad was an avid exerciser, a real physical person from the time I can remember, so I think I inherited that from him.

I have always done aerobic exercise and strength training. It enhances the physical aspect of my job. It helps me be on the road and not get overly fatigued. It helps my endurance on stage. I know that can be a big help with Alzheimer’s.

I read a lot and I have managed to keep a reading study going, like now I’m studying non-violence. I have a community of girlfriends who are all into this so I feel like I’m still sort of in class. I love to read, and at a young age I started doing yoga and meditation, so that’s an ongoing process. I have a very rich, deep support system of girlfriends, a spiritual community I’m a part of. And I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables; I don’t eat a lot of red meat. I kind of watch my diet. I’m not a fanatic, but I try to be aware.

 I take a multi-vitamin and I take extra calcium. I have a physical coming up and I’ve been told that vitamin E is very helpful, so I want to talk to my doctor about how much I should start taking. I hear that helps with Alzheimer’s. I remember them putting my mom on pretty high doses of vitamin E.

ET: What one thing on that list of 10 weren’t you doing?

KM: I still use artificial sweeteners. I’ve also heard some questions about non-stick coatings on your pans and whether that’s a good thing. I will tell you one of the things that flips me out on that is my mother for my entire life made spaghetti sauce in a giant aluminum pot. So it was acidic tomatoes being boiled for long periods of time. I have a picture of that pot in my head, and it’s pock marked, so I don’t know how much that contributed. I don’t have aluminum cookware, but some of those other adjustments about the Teflon are next on my list to change.

ET: Maybe you won’t see the disease manifest itself.

KM: I may not. But I also want to face it. I’ve watched some of my family members not want to face it, and I want to look it squarely in the eye and embrace it. I have awareness about it now, and I can pretend I don’t or I can show up.

ET: You say some of your family members didn’t want to face it. What do you mean?

KM: My mother resisted it. My mom knew that her memory was going, and she’d been so sharp. I can remember watching her trying to get dinner on the table when she was no longer capable. I’d come home to visit, it would be Sunday dinner and she’d taken chicken out of the freezer and she’d say, “I’m just going to thaw this chicken and bake it.” Then she’d come to me a little bit later and say, “Let’s just order pizza today.” I’d say, “OK, do you want to put that chicken back in the freezer then?” and she would have totally forgotten.

When she realized she was losing it, her way of dealing with it was to try to muddle through. She would tense up and by sheer force of will try to make it happen. She realized she could not will herself to get a meal on the table. She was washing the dishes and she slammed a pot down into the sink and fell into my dad’s arms apologizing to him for not being able to do this. She didn’t know how to cope with the grief and fear of watching it march into her life.

ET: Tell me about your mom, before the onset of Alzheimer’s.

KM: My mom was really something. She was wise, and she could get things done. She was a really powerful personality, not just in my life, but our whole family. If my cousins needed to talk something over and they couldn’t do it with their moms they’d come and talk to my mom. My friends who’d be going through hard times in their families would talk to my mom. She was brilliant. She had a sharp and quick wit. In the middle of her Alzheimer’s there was this little snapshot. She still knew everybody. She could still converse with us. It was in the early stages. My dad used to tease her; he would look at her and say, “Well mom, you know you’re getting older, and I think it might be just about time to trade you in on a new model.” She just looked him in the eye, kind of sniffed and said, “You wouldn’t know what to do with her.” We all looked at each other across the room, you know, because she couldn’t play a game of cards, but man she could come up with that. She was still in there. It was so great.

ET: Moments like that must be heartening but also tough to take.

KM: The thing that I walked away from the experience was that there was all of that at once. There were moments of profound grief and there were beacons of light in that process and gifts. In that way it was very rich.

There was a point when my mom still knew me, she knew all of us, but couldn’t really make conversation anymore. She could come up with a word here and there, and she liked being with people but she couldn’t really participate. I was going to visit some old college friends I used to play music with. I had ordered a guitar for a friend of mine and I was going to bring it with me, so I had it sent to my mom’s house. It came in and I checked it and tuned it up, and when I hit a chord, my mother started singing one of my songs. Just spontaneously out of the blue. My mom was tone deaf her whole life, so she never sang; she was real shy about singing. So for her to cut loose in a song was totally out of character.

I looked at Nancy, one of the caregivers, and my jaw hit the floor. Nancy said, “Oh yes honey, she does that at sundown. She gets restless so we bring her in the kitchen, sit her at the table and get out the boom box. While we make dinner we play her your greatest hits CD every night. We sing along to you everyday.” When my mom got Alzheimer’s she forgot that she couldn’t sing, so she sang all the time. It was one of the loveliest things.

I got my guitar out that day and we sang all my songs together. It was the first time in my life I sang with my mom. She had so much joy in that. All the inhibitions, all the layers of social self-consciousness had fallen away. She was like a child. Her joy was so beautiful.

ET: That’s telling about the power of music and your mom’s strength. What stage of her illness was that?

KM: It was about a year later that she didn’t know me anymore, and then she died that fall, about 14 months after that experience with my song. I tell you that summer, when she didn’t know me anymore, she could still sing “You Are My Sunshine.” It was the last thing she had. She had lost everything, but she still had music. She could sing “Amazing Grace.” That was our last connection and it taught me how important music is in our lives.

ET: Where did your mom stay as the disease progressed?

KM: She stayed in the house. My dad got diagnosed with cancer around the same time that my mom was diagnosed. My dad’s cancer progressed along the same timeline as my mom’s Alzheimer’s, except he died years before, so we had caregivers for them in the house they lived in. I felt really grateful about that because even when my mom didn’t know her way around the house anymore it was still familiar to her. I was so happy that she was able to stay in her comfort zone.

You know something just came to me. I would go home to visit and stay in a bedroom in the basement. It was a blessing because my cell phone would work from there so I could call friends for support. I remember sitting one night downstairs and I could hear Nancy doing the dishes after dinner. Mom was in bed. I remember thinking that I could tell from the sound what pot that is in the sink. My whole life I heard that particular spaghetti sauce pot in that particular sink, and I thought that this is a very familiar sound, only it’s not my mom washing that pot. At that point I realized the whole house had become like a museum. It wasn’t a living thing anymore. It wasn’t my mom’s house anymore. But we were all preserving this place because that was her window onto the world. This realization came over me all at once. I had sat in this basement after dinner and heard those noises for years, but it was not the same.

ET: You said earlier that you would embrace the grief that would precede or accompany Alzheimer’s. How would you do that?

KM: I want to try to set up a support system for myself, I want to grieve it as I go. I want to find support for the terror it wreaks in a person when you know it’s coming. And I want to try to have a plan so when I am no longer able to make decisions on my own behalf, I can trust that they are being made for me.

ET: And that means establishing with your friends certain…

KM: Medical powers of attorney. I’m the youngest in my family, so my brothers are older than me. My husband is eight years older than me. All my support system tends to be older than me so I’m looking through my life right now for people who might be willing to take medical power of attorney so I can talk to them now about what my wishes are, what my values are, and how I would want this to go.

ET: What are those wishes and values?

KM: I want to be taken care of. I want, I don’t even know—that’s part of the ongoing discussion. Like I can’t make the call when I would get institutionalized, but I can speak about the pros and cons of it and sort of give someone guidelines about what my feelings are about it in an open-ended discussion so that they’ll have some history with me and won’t be making guesses.

ET: You mentioned that you have no children. Is that by design?

KM: No. It’s by God’s design. We just weren’t able to have kids. We chose for all kinds of reasons not to adopt...I watched my mother try to pretend it wasn’t going to happen and I don’t want to do that. I want to take responsibility for my own well-being. In my mom’s family and my dad’s family it’s been the children who have stewarded the end of their parents’ lives. Except for one aunt who had no children. I want to learn from the generation before me.

It’s an emotional experience. It’s hard to talk about this today, but I’m trying to speak it out loud. I may not be mentally sharp enough to make decisions at some point and I know I need to try to do what I can now in case I need that kind of help.

ET: I’m sorry to get you emotional with this conversation.

KM: No, you know what, this is an emotional journey, and I don’t apologize for that anymore. I saw my mom not be able to grieve and I think that contributed to her memory loss, I really do. A commitment to myself and my own little test for myself is to grieve in my life as I go. I watched her brain snap because she could not feel the pain of watching my dad’s cancer take him, and that’s when her Alzheimer’s just took off. I saw how the pressure of that unprocessed grief compounded the situation.

 When I was at my parents’ house, I wasn’t able to cry because I was kind of on duty. But every time I came home, within 30 minutes of walking in my house I would be collapsed on the kitchen or bathroom floor, and my husband would just be sitting beside me with his hand on my back and I’d just be wailing. But I’m not afraid of that anymore. I’m not afraid of deep grief.

ET: Music is a conduit for that too, right?

KM: Grief and celebration. All of it. That’s what’s so beautiful about music.

ET: The way music broke through your mom’s haze seems to bode well for you. You will always have your music.

KM: That’s a lovely picture. Maybe I’ll be living in Abe’s Garden and I won’t be able to talk to anybody, but I’ll still be able to sing. And maybe my voice will still have some magic in it. You know that’s a lovely thought. I haven’t really thought about that before.

ET: Your husband co-wrote “Where’ve You Been” about his own grandmother. After your mother became sick, was there a moment on stage perhaps when it dawned on you in a deeper way that this became your family story, too?

KM: There was this moment when my dad was so weak. He was in the bedroom that was mine, and my mom really couldn’t process what was going on. So we had these two “movies” playing out in my mom’s house at the same time: My mom was physically healthy and losing her mind, and my father’s mind was intact but his body was shutting down. He finally had a stroke and went into a coma, but before he did the caregivers brought her into the room to see him for the last time.

I remember sitting with her that afternoon, and she said, “I saw daddy today.” Sometimes she would say that when she hadn’t been in to see him. I just remember how heartbreaking that was. He stayed and he hung on for the longest time because he so staunchly needed to help her stay anchored.

 He was her last real connection to the world; he was so afraid she would fall to pieces when he left. And we kept on saying to him over and over again, “We’ll take care of mom. It’s okay for you to go.” But even in his coma he didn’t want to let go. That part was so hard, watching him be so connected but losing the ability to really have that connection and at the same time they were connected on some other level. They were aware of each other to the end.

As that was playing out I could not bring that into the forefront of my mind as I was singing that song. And even now I have to keep a bit of emotional distance in the singing of the song in order to be able to deliver it. It’s interesting. I never really thought of this that way before. I remember having the sense that I never really got a good night’s sleep when I was home visiting because you are just hyper-vigilant for anything. We had a baby monitor in my mom’s room. Sometimes I would be the on-duty person that night in case she got up and started to wander around or move around in the bed and maybe fall out. So you’d just be on all the time. So there was some part of me that could not break down when I was in the house. I was on duty.

And it’s the same feeling when I sing “Where’ve You Been?” I cannot personalize that story too much because I’m on duty. I’m on duty to steward that song for everybody else. So I can’t indulge myself. I can’t get to the personal. I have to stay focused on the universal telling of the story.

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