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Masterful Mattea

Grammy winner returns to WVU to work with School of Music student

Devon Cliett was about halfway through his performance of “Wayfaring Stranger” Thursday afternoon when Kathy Mattea politely asked him to stop.

“It isn’t anything bad,” she said.

“You have a beautiful voice,” the Grammy-winning country music singer and social activist from Cross Lanes continued.

“But I’m wondering if we could play around with a few things for the performance.”

Cliett, 21, a WVU music composition senior from Philadelphia, smiled and nodded.

That was the whole point.

Cliett and other students in the School of Music had gathered on the rainy afternoon at the WVU Museum Education Center for the exercise.

Mattea was launching her first mentoring session as the School of Music’s Distinguished Artist in Residence for the 2019-20 academic year.

It was an academic homecoming for her.

Mattea attended the home of the Mountaineers in the late 1970s for a few semesters before dropping out and moving to Nashville, intent on making it as a songwriter in Music City.

In the meantime, the crowd Thursday at the education center was a representation of the enrollment of the School of Music, in microcosm.

Call it a mix of opera and Opry. Musical theater majors shared the same space as members of the School of Music’s bluegrass band.

“Sharing” was the sonic watch-word of the day.

That was because Mattea had asked everyone to move their chairs in closer before she got started.

“Much, much better,” she said. “Now I can see everyone.”

In Cliett, she saw a performer with a big voice — who didn’t need to work so hard.

“Wayfaring Stranger” is the old Appalachian ballad about eternal salvation.

 Cliett gave the song a Paul Robeson-style treatment, which Mattea said didn’t fully serve the song.

So, she asked Cliett to “talk” the lyrics, to her, first.

“Don’t think about ‘performing’ it,” she said.

“Just tell me what it’s about, then sing it.”

The pupil was apt, and when Cliett did as instructed, the reading went from mannered and academic, to plaintive and soulful:

“I know dark clouds will hover o’er me/I know my pathway is rough and steep/But golden fields lie out before me/Where weary eyes no more will weep …”

Kathy Mattea speaks during a master class with voice students on Thursday.

Mattea caught her breath — then led the applause.

“Oh, my God,” she said, smiling.

“Tell me how that felt. When you were in the lyric, and pulled back, that’s when I felt the emotion.”

The student caught it, too, and appeared surprised at the audience reaction.

“Man,” he said later, in a hallway.

“She’s so insightful, and just the way she teaches … I learned something today.”