Whether she is backed by a simply strummed guitar or a symphony, the song always remains the same for Kathy Mattea.
Ms. Mattea, who performs tonight with the Augusta Symphony for its Pops series, has, over the course of more than 20 years in the music business, been a gold record and Grammy winner in addition to a Nashville outsider content to record music that moved her, if no one else. Through her many phases the constant has been her approach based on the belief that a good song, sung well, will always be of paramount importance.
"I was really lucky to have learned early in my career about the importance of the song," she said in a recent telephone interview. "When I first moved to Nashville, I played my tape for a lot of people and I had this one producer who told me I had a beautiful instrument but that the songs I was singing weren't moving anyone. That was important. It got my compass pointed early."
She said learning to select songs that are great, rather than merely good, is instinctual.
"It's a constant learning process, and part of it is looking at the songs that remain fun to sing," she said. "Those are the gems. And they don't have to be ballads or up-tempo. They don't have to be serious or have a sense of humor. A great song will stand up in any environment."
Ms. Mattea said playing with a symphony is always appealing because it allows her the opportunity to hear, and perform, old favorites in new ways.
"Make no mistake, I have the best seat in the house," she said. "OK, maybe the conductor has the best seat. But it's always quite humbling, playing with those musicians who have dedicated their lives to their instruments while I play these three chords on the guitar. I love hearing that expanded concept of a song."
Hearing such a sonic expansion can be as surprising as it is sweet.
"In the beginning I had some arrangements that I thought just didn't work," she said. "For instance, 455 Rocket. It's such a simple song, but with an orchestra there's a certain hip factor that just wasn't there before. That, for me, is a great test. Can you add to a song without taking away."
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT: Kathy Mattea with the Augusta Symphony
WHEN: 8 tonight
WHERE: Bell Auditorium, 712 Telfair St.
COST: $10-$40. Call 826-4705