Steamboat Springs Any song Kathy Mattea sings tells a story.
It can be a traditional Christmas song, a country hit from the late 1980s, a centuries-old Scottish tune or a heartbreaking tale of lifelong love. In all cases, Mattea gives her song choices context and meaning in her introductory anecdotes, her unyielding push and her subtle vocal interpretations.
At a holiday concert presented by Strings Music Festival on Tuesday at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort, Mattea joined guitarist and one-man band Bill Cooley for a set of holiday songs, followed by hits, interspersed with coal-mining tunes, and closing in a singalong. To a packed ballroom at the Sheraton, Mattea presented an honest and unwavering front through all the phases she’s seen in her more than two decades in the American music business. Holiday songs came with stories that were sometimes funny, sometimes touching and entirely personal.
The songs that made Mattea famous in the 1980s — “ Love at the Five and Dime” by Nancy Griffith and “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” by Paul and Gene Nelson hit the top of the charts at their debut — became instant crowd favorites that continue to have meaning long after they’ve stopped being pop tracks.
A set of three songs from Mattea’s 2008 album “Coal” was the emotional centerpiece of the concert. Bringing her Appalachian mountain roots to songs by Jean Ritchie and other folk greats, Mattea delivered a set of stunning performances that showcase her unwavering voice, with imperfections that render a sad song sadder and stronger. One of those selections also gave Cooley a chance to shine, demonstrating a quick-moving and never-failing style of guitar playing that is jazz-informed in its Americana setting.
Mattea has a sharp sense of humor that allows a close-knit connection to the audience in an intimate concert setting like the one she played Tuesday. It keeps the show moving from mood to mood, never letting the listener linger on a song in a minor key for too long. It also occasionally allows for jokes, which Mattea offered up about her hair, her guitarist, her music, her popularity and dyslexia. Some jokes work, some don’t. In any case, Mattea can leave all jokes aside when it comes to her friends and her music, which she did in an encore singalong dedicated to ailing friend Jean Ritchie. The audience joined in a three-part round in a song about peace, and the night closed with a warm feeling that blended all the emotions Mattea had presented.