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Kathy Mattea turns her back on the Nashville mainstream to find happiness without hit records

It's been eight years since a Kathy Mattea song has seen the inside of the Top 20. And she couldn't care less.

"I'm singing better than I've sung in years," declares the woman who made smashes of "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses" and "Walking Away a Winner," among others. "My show is more spontaneous than it's been in years. I feel like I've been through a mini-renaissance."

A couple of years ago, Kathy left her major Nashville record label for a smaller independent, and stopped worrying about getting her songs played on country radio.

"It felt like the right time, and the right opportunity presented itself," she says of the change. "I had a wonderful run on Mercury Records, but the company got sold, the industry changed, and I thought, 'This doesn't feel right. It feels like it's time to go.' I did not know what was out there for me, but it felt like that wasn't right anymore and I couldn't get to the next right thing unless I acknowledged that."

The result was her latest album, Roses, an acoustic-flavored effort that adds intriguing Celtic flavors to her signature sound. It's a mix Kathy is eager to continue exploring.

"I think I'll probably stay in the world of acoustic music," she figures. "I'm actually thinking about the next record being even more acoustic-based, less electric."

Kathy is currently writing and collecting songs for that next album and plans to release a new Christmas CD before the end of the year. She's also making plans for a gospel album and possibly a bluegrass offering as well. "I have several records in my head that I want to make," she says with a smile.

While none of that music will be mainstream country, she hasn't left Nashville itself -- she and husband Jon Vezner have lived in the same house there for the last 13 years. They also have a farm nearby. "We get out there as a kind of retreat," she says. "That makes a big difference."

And although you may not hear Kathy on country radio, her commitment to making honest music that comes from her heart continues.

"In my own life, music has been a solace," she testifies. "Sometimes there'll be a song that articulates something for me that I can't get to myself. Sometimes it's cathartic, sometimes it's comforting. Sometimes it's just, 'Let's have a good time,' and that's perfectly valid as well.

"That's what any kind of well-done art does -- it connects with people, and illuminates some part of their spirit."