Multi-Grammy and CMA award winner Kathy Mattea’s new album Pretty Bird, out now via her Captain Potato imprint, comes across as more than a typical covers project. It’s the studio equivalent of a Nashville cafe’s resident singer-songwriter adding less-obvious covers to her expected set. Each new addition lends context to the mindset behind prior weeks’ originals, including crowd pleasing country music cuts “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” “Where’ve You Been,” “Come From the Heart,” “Love at the Five and Dime” and other greatest hits selections.
The Tim O’Brien-produced project starts not with an old favorite but with “Chocolate on My Tongue,” a track by modern Americana jacks of all trades the Wood Brothers. It fades right into the mysterious allure of Bobbie Gentry’s 1968 crossover smash “Ode to Billie Joe.”
The latter–a definitive work from another woman without concern for country, folk and pop boundaries–better represents both Mattea as an artist and also the album itself. Other covers include mighty renditions of Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now,” Loreena McKennitt’s take on the British folk song “He Moves Through the Fair,” Joan Osborne’s “St. Teresa” and Martha Carson’s “I Can’t Stand Up Alone.” Best of all, Mattea closes out the album with the poignant title track, a cover of fellow Appalachian environmentalist and West Virginia native Hazel Dickens.
She also sought inspiration from the gorgeous arrangements of Jesse Winchester (“A Little Glass of Wine), Peter Mayer (“Holy Now”), past collaborator Dougie MacLean (“This Love Will Carry”) and other old friends.
In each case, Mattea and longtime guitarist Bill Cooley strip already folk-friendly songs down to bare bones arrangements that draw attention to the singer’s undeniable talent as a song interpreter and a well-versed student in country and American folk music’s global roots.