The Infinite Jukebox: Kathy Mattea’s ‘Asking us to Dance’

Again it was the early Nineties, and a combination of things conspires to have me listening to country music for a few years. This, in itself, is almost miraculous, because I don’t like country music, I really don’t. The occasional examples of it that hit the UK chart all hurt my ears: Lynn Anderson, Faron Young, Tammy Wynette, oh God, Kenny Rogers. I am not enamoured of the sound of the pedal steel guitar. I cannot stand the voice of the male country singer. In short, even more so than Heavy Metal, this music is an anathema to me.
Then I start exchanging cassettes with a never-really girlfriend. One brings together k.d. lang and Shawn Colvin, which was how I started a musical love affair that’s lasted thirty years so far. I stay a weekend with a couple of friends in Shropshire, the Country Music Awards are on on Saturday night, we watch, take the piss, but are truly impressed by some songs, one of them Alison Krauss’s version of ‘When you say nothing at all’.
I hear of and listen to some Nanci Griffiths. In the HMV Shop’s basement, in the country section, I see a CD of Suzy Bogguss with a cover photo which makes her look like a dead ringer for my lovely friend Fliss, and there are some good, upfront songs on it. I find that I do not loathe the female country voice. In Doonesbury, Gary Trudeau has his longterm protest singer/songwriter Jimmy Thudpucker go country, defending himself by claiming that that’s where song and melody has gone now that it’s been forced out by rap and hiphop, and I find myself nodding in agreement.
The phase doesn’t last long, but whilst it does I seek out new voices to explore. Of course Emmylou Harris becomes one of them, though it’s not until the Daniel Lanois-produced Wrecking Ball that I am really captured. But my range is not unlimited. My interest has gone as far as Country, but not & Western. Anything that’s deep country, whether in sound or lyrical atmosphere, is too much for me. I fancy Reba McIntyre – she’s a redhead, isn’t she? – but I can’t listen to her.
No, where I find I enjoy Country music are the (usually) younger female artistes, singers of songs that aren’t overburdened with Country sounds, no pedal steel or bluegrass fiddles, that in the Seventies would just have been classed alongside singer-songwriters.
Kathy Mattea was one of those who were close to the edge of what I could enjoy, though the edge this time was not so much Deep Country as MOR. Nice voice, but with not enough of that edge to her music that I still found fundamental to anything I liked to hear. One CD, borrowed from Withington Library, played, enjoyed but not enough. Three tracks taped and retained.
All three are semi-melodramatic ballads. Mattea has a good, powerful, yearning voice and ballads suit her, especially with lyrics that have a bit of a melodramatic theme. I’ve still got those tracks, now burned to a private CD compilation.
As far as I’m concerned, ‘Asking Us To Dance’ is the stand-out, still, after thirty years. It’s a love song, but it’s a love song from a standpoint that’s very rarely represented in modern music, and certainly not pop music as we have known it since the Fifties.
It’s about Love, oh yes, and it’s sung to a loved one, but this is no boyfriend, actual or desired. Mattea, as perhaps her status in Country music, music of the people with its conventional and Christian roots in family, is singing to her husband. A long-married husband. A husband still loved, but a love that, through no fault of either but just through the way love gets put aside in the face of living, that has started to risk growing stale through disuse.
And Mattea has recognised that danger, the danger of loss that not just yet, but maybe soon if not faced head-on, might dry up and blow away. Because that love has been the foundation stone of everything they have built. And it should be and must be fought for, by recognition, by a re-watering of it at its roots.
She conjures up a night with a full moon, casting its light down on a scene that’s become familiar to them in a way that it shouldn’t: the tangled silver dangling from the cypress trees, the moonlight river flowing into the lake and, above all, both literally and figuratively, a sky full of a million stars, big, wide and open, and every one of those stars waiting for them to wish upon. Some will snort at the cliche of the scene, but Mattea sings with a heartfelt passion that makes the moment as real for us as it is in this moment for her, because it’s a moment of recognition, and one of longing.
And she makes her appeal to him, the silent, nameless partner who is as important to her as breathing, and with whom she is afraid their connection might be lost. Darling, she sings, tonight I am reminded how much these two hearts need romance. You know, it isn’t very often we get this kind of chance. She’s asking him to join her in this sudden, almost mad moment, why don’t we get caught in this moment? Be victims of sweet circumstance. It possesses her so deeply that she transcends the ordinariness of their mundane, settled lives: tonight I feel like all creation is asking us to dance.
And in token of what she is saying in this chorus, there is a harmonising voice, in time and tune with her but buried deeper in the mix. I don’t know who is the singer, but his is the male voice, the echo and complement to Mattea, the symbol of the love she wants to enfold herself within.
There is another verse, that recounts the flatness of the lives they lead and its eternal existence, still there tomorrow, for them to return to, but it is this very ordinariness that leads her to plead for him to feel what has overcome her now, this special moment, when heaven and earth meet where they are and are waiting, ready to be open fully, as once they were, and her adamant belief that all the things on earth worth having are the things they’ve already got.
Though if he hasn’t already responded to that beautifully sung chorus, and her soul deep feelings, no other words will sway him.
But we know he’ll respond. No matter how long we’ve been together, been in love, no matter how dulled that first overwhelming passion has become by familiarity and repetition, those two are still within us, and just as flowers need to be fed, watered, nurtured, that original love needs nurturing if it is not to die.
Kathy Mattea sings as a plea, but the depth that remains in her heart must call back the man she still loves. A song with this solidity could only have come from Country music, so lacking in doubt but nevertheless still well-versed in fragility.
Darling, tonight I am reminded…

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