Country singer returns to W. Virginia to host radio show

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – Kathy Mattea was just starting to unpack boxes when much of the country shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The country music star – who returned to West Virginia this month to host Mountain Stage for its second live, audience-free, streaming-only show at the Culture Center Theater in Charleston – bought a house with her husband, Jon Vezner, the year before.

They spent months fixing the place up and had just left their old house when they had to shelter in place.

“Suddenly, we had all the time in the world to unpack and move furniture,” the Cross Lanes native said.

Mattea said the shutdown forced her to make her home be a home, not a quick or easy process for someone who usually spends so much time on the road. Time slowed to a crawl.

“It allowed us to really sink our roots into this new place,” she said.

The slowing down spread through Mattea’s professional life.

With no shows, performers like Mattea couldn’t work. A lot of musicians worried about paying the rent, but not everyone took the shutdown as a loss.

Mattea’s longtime guitarist, Bill Cooley, took it as a sign.

In the beginning of the pandemic, she said he called her up and said, “Kath, I think I’m ready to not be on the road anymore.”

After 36 years together, Cooley wanted to retire, but he offered to teach her how to play the guitar parts for all her songs.

“So, I spent the summer with charts and video lessons and practicing my own songs,” Mattea said, adding, “It’s good to scare yourself at 60.”

She didn’t entirely stay at home. When restrictions loosened over the summer, she and her husband went to Minnesota to clear out and sell his family’s lake house. They wound up buying a little cabin of their own, a vacation spot.

“We always talked about what it would be like to spend a summer on the lake,” Mattea said. “But it just never happened. We’d make plans, but then I’d get a gig.”

They spent two months in the cabin, watching a family of eagles raise their young and having picnic suppers with old friends.

“It was just the most wonderful thing,” she said.

But the slowing down couldn’t last.

A few weeks ago, Mattea sat in for a performance during a friend’s album release party, held on the spacious porch of their big East Nashville house.

Fans sat out in the yard in lawn chairs. Neighbors pulled out furniture from their living rooms to come listen nearby.

She also played under a tent in the parking lot of City Winery.

“It’s kind of a really nice supper club and listening room,” she said. “It’s a very classy place.”

Normally, City Winery would seat about 350, but for safe social distancing, they limited the crowd to 100.

“People are getting creative,” she said. “They’re trying to keep music alive.”

Mountain Stage is trying to do the same, she said.

During the pandemic, the radio program added new affiliate stations and new listeners.

They wanted to provide listeners, both longtime and new, with fresh shows, but it took a while to make it work.

“The good news is that it’s a radio show, so it can be done,” Mattea said.

She said she was glad to get to guest host again. She said she enjoyed working with Mountain Stage and said she’s on a good show.

“We’ve got Ranky Tanky on,” she said. “They’re just fun. They seem like the perfect band to listen to after COVID.”

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