The year 1989 was awesome for Kathy Mattea. Her brand of country-pop music began to evolve toward folk and Celtic-oriented influences, which were actually encouraged by her label -- changes like this in Nash Vegas are few and far between -- and what's more, it all translated in terms of chart success and record sales. A strong and indeed the first completely realized project of her career, Willow in the Wind boasted three hits, "Burnin' Old Memories," "Where've You Been," and "Come from the Heart." The hard honky tonk/West Texas swing of "Burnin' Old Memories," with its slightly rocked-up tempo, is more than just catchy; it's infectious. "Hills of Alabam'" is one of those gorgeous songs where the weary traveler -- with a lonesome harmonica in the background -- romanticizes home as contrasted with the harsh questions of the present and the uncertain future. Mattea's phrasing is impeccable in that she becomes an itinerant musician riding endless hours on some forsaken urban freeway in the predawn light.
But the true stunner on Willow in the Wind is, of course, a love song. Written by Zen bluegrass queen Laurie Lewis, it's the most springlike testament to new love and is free of sentimentality or emotional manipulation, and Mattea's voice is perfect for its utterance. Slippery acoustic guitars, a piano, and a strolling bass anchored by a small drum kit are what frame the verses, with a shimmering pedal steel on the refrains. It's simply orchestrated, with an old-timey feel, and when Mattea takes the last verse she lays all cheesy, false, and clichéd love songs to waste: "Love cuts like a torch to a heart behind steel/And though you may hide it, love knows how you feel/And though you may trespass on the laws of the land/Your heart has to follow when love takes your hand/And it seems we're two people/Within the same circle/It's drawn tighter and tighter/'Till you're all I can see/I'm full and I'm empty and you're pouring through me/Like the warm rain fallin' through the leaves on a tree/Tell me now if I'm wrong are you feeling the same/Are your feet on the ground/Are you callin' my name/Do you lie awake nights/Please say you do/You can't choose who you love/Love chooses you." The record closes two tracks later, but it hardly matters -- the case has been made.