MTSU student and aspiring country music artist Hunter Wolkonowski of Winchester, Tennessee, knew that singer-songwriter Kathy Mattea was coming to give a guest lecture earlier this semester. But the real thing — which even included a few songs by the Grammy-winning country music artist — was still surreal.
“I’ve been a fan of country music since I was a young girl, and I’d come in the house and I’d hear my Nana playing records on the record machine, and she’d play Kathy Mattea,” said Wolkonowski, who’s majoring in recording industry management within the College of Media and Entertainment.
“I’ve always looked up to (Mattea), so when I walked in, I couldn’t believe it was her. She was super nice, super grounded … I guess she is something I’d want to be when I grow up because I’m wanting to be in country music.”
Wolkonowski was among the 20 or so students in MTSU professor Kris McCusker’s popular music studies class, “American Music in the Modern Age,” who were treated to more than an hour of insights and wisdom from the Nashville singer-songwriter earlier this semester.
McCusker, a professionally trained ethnomusicologist and historian, said her Department of History course looks at how historical events have shaped music, such as producing certain kinds of “sounds” and/or musicians.
“What we do is see the ways that history produces music, how music is the outcome of political, cultural and social changes at various points in the past,” she said.
Mattea’s visit stemmed from an interview she did with a graduate student last spring. McCusker assisted the student with the phone interview, which was done from MTSU’s Center for Popular Music in the Bragg Media and Entertainment Building.
An invitation was extended, which Mattea gladly accepted. Greg Reish, director of the Center for Popular Music, assisted McCusker with the logistics to bring Mattea to campus.
“She’s a real educator at heart,” said McCusker, who noted that her class was studying music the 1980s and 90s, a period when Mattea was hitting it big on the country music scene. Mattea rose to prominence in the 1980s with hits such as “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” “Goin’ Gone” and “Love at the Five and Dime.”
Mattea shared with students how she got started in her music career during that time and also discussed her social activism around issues such as HIV/AIDS and the environment. The AIDS activism was sparked by Mattea having friends who died from AIDS, but “nobody was talking about it,” McCusker said. A native of West Virginia coal country, Mattea would later turn her attention to the environment.
Using McCusker’s class guitar, Mattea even performed a few selections, including her song “Seeds” that includes this verse: “In the end, we’re all just seeds in God’s hands, we start the same, but where we land, it’s sometimes fertile soil, it’s sometimes sand, we’re all just seeds in God’s hands.”
Here’s a short video of McCusker discussing the visit and a few clips of Mattea performing “Seeds” for the class: https://youtu.be/RvqOnf-kgb4
These days and in the wake of a bitterly divisive presidential election, Mattea shared with students “the beginnings of the ways she started seeing music differently, from simply being an entertainment medium, to a medium that builds relationships among people, that crosses political barriers around certain environmental and social issues,” McCusker said.
Wolkonowski, who performs under the name Hunter Girl a few times each week at various venues in Nashville, was inspired by Mattea’s socially conscious perspective.
“I really liked how she had the ability to write songs that pertain to what’s going on in the world right now,” she said. “All of her songs have a story … she really puts social and economic things that are going on in our life today and puts them into words for people who can’t really speak up about things.”
McCusker said Mattea plans to return to MTSU in the spring to work with Reish in the Center for Popular Music.