NOW THAT SHE'S got it made -- and with her talent, she does -- Kathy Mattea can laugh at the stuff she once did to pay the bills.
Like her job as a tour guide at the Country Music Association's museum and Hall of Fame in Nashville.
"I can still do it," she says now, her voice dropping into a properly awed and serious tone. "And here, ladies and gentlemen, the actual car that Elvis drove. Note the gold-plated ice-cube trays in the back seat."
And like when she was just starting out on the road, working places with all-you-can-eat-for-$2.99 menus.
"Arkansas was the first place I was a star, not counting home," Mattea says. "I autographed a guy's wooden leg in Fayetteville."
Now look at her.
Here she is, saucy as all get-out in a fancy Manhattan hotel, as big as they get in country music, with a hot new album and the only female in the running tonight for the Country Music Association's entertainer of the year award.
Her competition is Randy Travis, George Strait (who won it last year), Ricky Van Shelton and Clint Black. She also was nominated for single of the year (which she won last year), female vocalist (ditto) and best video.
"It's been wild," says Mattea. "But wild I can handle."
She has a knack for pretty, intelligent ballads that express sentiments that seem to go with rock-solid relationships in an uncertain world. At the moment, this is making her a serious success.
Mattea, at 30, is on top of the world and the charts.
Her new album, "A Collection of Hits" (Mercury) is the only one in the top 10 by a female artist. A single off the album, "The Battle Hymn of Love," a duet with Tim O'Brien, is top 10. More to the big-city point, the album is crossing over onto the pop charts.
She works 90 to 95 dates a year, "anywhere I can get up a crowd," she says. Her concert style is decidedly relaxed. "I want audiences to feel like they just spent 90 minutes in my living room," she says.
With her deep, throaty, sincere voice -- "It's mezzo-soprano or something close," she says -- and her easy-access image, she's often compared with Anne Murray. No, she doesn't mind.
People in the industry have known about Mattea for years, but it wasn't until 1988 that she really took off. That was the year that her "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses" was song of the year. The year she toured with Strait. That she toured Europe. That she got married.
"The kind of year you want to bottle and put on a shelf," she says.
Suddenly, everything, old or new, was a hit -- "Love at the Five & Dime," "Walk the Way the Wind Blows," "Untold Stories," "Goin' Gone," "Life as We Knew It," "She Came From Ft. Worth" and "Come From the Heart."
And, the one that created such a stir, "Where've You Been."
The song, co-written by her husband, John Vezner, is about a couple never separated in 60 years of marriage who wind up institutionalized -- in separate beds on separate floors. Maybe because it struck a chord about the way that America treats its elderly, it has become a kind of anthem.
Mattea is that Nashville rarity, an Italian-American country singer. (Her grandparents passed through Ellis Island en route from Italy to West Virginia.) She's also extremely bright, with an IQ somewhat higher than Hank Jr.'s entire band (she was majoring in chemistry and physics when she quit the University of West Virginia to try music).
She's a rarity in another sense. Unlike most Nashville artists, who avoid anything controversial, Mattea has gotten involved in AIDS fund-raising. "It's something I got into because a friend died," she says.
It took her about 11 years to hit the peak.
She grew up in Cross Lane, W.Va., where she learned to play guitar as a Girl Scout. She graduated to bluegrass then folk and then to nowhere -- as a struggling Nashville artist, she got paid as little as $10 for demos.
"I made more as a waitress," she says. "A lot more."
But persistence paid off, and eventually she was a backup singer (Bobby Goldsboro was one boss) and jingle singer.
Disappointments? "I wanted to sing the National Anthem the year West Virginia went to the Fiesta Bowl," she says. "But they wouldn't let me."
Then, there was that time onstage at a county fair in Texas when crickets got inside her dress. OK, but at least none of the customers there asked her to sign a wooden leg.
"Yeah, well," she says, "there is that."