The West Virginia native came of age musically in the Nashville songwriting community, where she sang demos for rising young tunesmiths. Signed to her first recording contract in 1983, she nurtured that connection, giving a score of now-famous songwriters their first hit — and many their first #1. The list includes Nanci Griffith, whose Love At The Five and Dime was Mattea’s first hit in 1986.
Her recordings brought attention to such diverse talents as Guy and Susanna Clark, Gillian Welch, Tim O’Brien, Jim Lauderdale, Pat Alger, Don Henry, Fred Koller, Gary Burr, Larry Cordle, Mark Germino, Karen Staley, Steve Key, Craig Bickhardt and her husband, Jon Vezner. She also took the unusual step of looking beyond Nashville for songs, picking memorable tunes from such eclectic sources as Janis Ian, Cheryl Wheeler, Dave Mallett, Julie Gold and bluegrass singer Laurie Lewis. “Songwriters were always the people I knew and hung out with,” she says. “I looked at writers, rather than singers, as my peers.”
She also made unusual yet prescient choices when hiring musicians for her records and her band. She hired many musicians who went on to great acclaim as instrumentalists. The list includes banjoist Bela Fleck, fiddler Mark O’Connor, bassist Edgar Meyer, dobroist Jerry Douglas, dulcimer player David Schnaufer, pianist John Jarvis and guitarists Ray Flacke and Vince Gill (years before he became a household name.) She often blended renowned veterans with these upstarts, using Nashville veterans like pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, bassist Bob Wray and fiddler Buddy Spicher as well as such non-country talents as Michael McDonald, Graham Nash, Jonathan Edwards, Dougie Maclean, Karla Bonoff, Andrew Gold, Timothy B. Schmit and The Roches. “Because of the way we worked, I was able to get really good players who were artists in their own right. We didn’t make cookie-cutter records. Everybody who came in wanted to be there, and they gave 100 percent. We had a good time in the studio.”