September 24, 1990 12:00 PM

It was that special moment in a song, the moment that makes eyes well and the breath catch. Country singer Kathy Mattea was outdoors at a Florida festival performing her hit “Where’ve You Been,” when she came to the poignant pause before the last chorus that always brings tears to her listeners. “Suddenly,” she recalls, “the loudspeaker booms out, ‘Edith Thomas, please come to the Swine Barn.’ I’m standing there thinking, so what do I do now? Finish the song? Make some comment? I looked down at a woman crying her eyes out, and I realized she never heard the announcement because she was so into the lyrics. So I went ahead and finished.”

“Where’ve You Been,” which tells the story of an aged, ailing married couple who are reunited in a hospital room, had always caused considerable emotion when Mattea performed it onstage. But early on she had considered it an unlikely hit. “I didn’t know how it would play on the radio,” she says. “When you’re driving to work in the morning, do you want to hear about your dying grandparents and people in the hospital?”

A sentimental army of record buyers answered yes. “Where’ve You Been” has become this year’s country weeper, turning her Willow in the Wind LP to gold and propelling the 31-year-old West Virginian into the ranks of country music diva-dom. Thanks to its success, Mattea has now raked in nominations as Female Vocalist of the Year, Entertainer of the Year and for Single of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards Show next month (CBS, Oct. 8), and husband Jon Vezner, who co-wrote the tune with Nashville’s Don Henry, may well waltz off with a Song of the Year trophy as well.

Vezner, 39, had conceived the song after an incident involving his own grandparents several years ago. Both were in their 90s; he had had a brain seizure, and she seemed to be failing fast with problems of her own. “My grandmother didn’t acknowledge anybody,” says Vezner. “I found my grandfather hadn’t seen her since they arrived at the hospital, so I loaded him into a wheelchair and took him to her room. Her eyes followed him as he picked up her hand, stroked her hair, and, as if nothing had happened, she asked, ‘Where’ve you been?’ ”

Although “Where’ve You Been” has given Mattea more visibility than any earlier song, she has had hits before—six No. 1 singles including “Goin’ Gone,” released in 1987, and the 1988 truckers’ anthem, “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses.” But her success didn’t come quickly. The only daughter among three children born to a chemical-plant worker and his homemaker wife, she grew up in Cross Lanes, W.Va., listening to folk, rock, church music and “whatever music was around.” At West Virginia University, she studied engineering and chemistry but began singing in a bluegrass band at night. “Naive and 19,” she quit college, tied a mattress to her car, hung out a sign that said NASHVILLE OR BUST and gave herself five years to cut her first record.

“Nashville’s a big town, and there are lots of great singers around,” she says now. “I don’t know why I thought I’d do well.” While she worked to win a recording contract, Mattea paid the bills by waiting on tables at a Nashville restaurant and by leading tourist tours through the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. She lived above a music publisher, where Jon Vezner worked as a staff writer. One day she discovered that her car wouldn’t start, and Vezner came by with jumper cables and lent a hand. “I had no idea I was going to fall in love,” she says. “I had just been in a relationship that wasn’t good, and I was less concerned with finding Mr. Right than I’d ever been.” On their first date, Mattea flatly announced she was not interested in a relationship. Vezner flatly agreed. On Valentine’s Day in 1988 they married. Now she and Vezner share an unpretentious blue clapboard house, complete with screened porch and ceiling fans, on Nashville’s modest southeast side. But Mattea isn’t opting for home life yet. A vacation in Scotland inspired her to try working some traditional Scottish and Celtic rhythms into her music, and she says she’d like to record an album of that as well. “I’m not looking to get out of country music—it’s my home,” she says. “But I’m also not looking to make the same record over and over.”

With a greatest-hits album newly in the stores and another single, a duet with Tim O’Brien titled “Battle Hymn of Love,” now flashing up the charts, Mattea seems to have stardom locked up like a guitar case. Even so, come suppertime she still often wears an apron around her kitchen emblazoned with the words CAPITANA POTATO. It’s a joke, she says, from the time a friend came to pick up a backstage pass Kathy Mattea had left, only to be told there was no Captain Potato performing that night. “You know what they say about this business,” she says. “You have to have the soul of a poet and the skin of a rhinoceros.”

Cynthia Sanz, Jane Sanderson in Nashville

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