PREMIERE: KATHY MATTEA FELT COMPELLED TO RECORD “TURN OFF THE NEWS (BUILD A GARDEN)”
When Lukas Nelson first recorded “Turn Off The News (Build A Garden)” in early 2019, he did not anticipate the track’s premonitory nature in the rocky socio-political era that followed.
Recorded on a trip to the idyllic Shangri-La in Malibu, the song served as the title track of Nelson and his band Promise of the Real’s sophomore effort with Fantasy Records—a set of songs steeped in counterculture ideals characteristic of the rock n’ roll movement that first inspired his artistry.
But now, bearing round-the-clock digital witness to the war unfolding across Ukraine, the delicate rallying cry has never been so dire.
As the new host of the revered Mountain Stage, Kathy Mattea consumes music for a living. So the now 62-year-old artist was taken aback by her sweeping emotional response to Nelson’s thought piece tune. The song, she explains, “basically chased me down; it would not let me go.”
On March 3, Mattea is premiering a cover of “Turn Off The News (Build a Garden),” alongside a video from when the song was recorded and first debuted during a taping of Mountain Stage, with American Songwriter.
Mattea has never met Nelson and jokes she is not even sure he knows about this recording. But she has crossed paths with his father—the legendary Willie Nelson—several times over the course of her decades-spanning career. One night while tidying up at home, Mattea remembered an Austin City Limits set she recorded featuring the younger Nelson and listened to it as background music. She was halfway through kitchen clean-up when “Turn Off The News (Build a Garden)” came on.
“I stopped in my tracks,” Mattea recalls of the fateful moment. “That doesn’t happen really, very often —that a song just takes me completely out of what I’m doing. And that’s always a sign to me.”
She walked over to marvel at the song, rewound the set, and played it over again. “It’s so understated and so clear,” she continues. “It’s not antagonistic but points to something—a solution. It struck me to my core.”
The song resided in her mind for the next few days, prompting her to research different recordings. “I kept hearing it a certain way, and I just could not settle down till I got my guitar out and taught myself a version of that song and came up with my own arrangement,” she explains.
So when it was time for an encore at her next gig, Mattea knew exactly where to reach. “I just walked back out on the stage alone and I was like ‘Look, I found a song, and this is the thought I’d like to leave you with tonight as you walk to your cars,’” she continues. “And people were very moved by it —which is what you hope.”
The simplistic lyrics, when overlaid with the implications of a devastating global pandemic and rising racial tension surmounting in national protests, resonate with nearly every person in today’s digital world. For many, 2020 was spent glued to the tube—examining our humanity as lost lives become just a number on a ticker. Nelson doesn’t claim to have the answers, nor a soapbox. But, through his words, Nelson urges us to consider what might happen if we did turn off the bad news box, and stepped out into our community to build something together.
We might feel a bit less hardened / We might feel a bit more free, Mattea sings with gentle resolve.
Building a garden became a widespread outlet as quarantine halted the supersonic pace of modern living. Through her own rendition, Mattea envisions a metaphorical garden as fertile ground for rebuilding relationships severed by political division and digital addiction. The idea is not to turn a blind eye to the shape-shifting, recently devastating, events unfolding on the screen. Rather, it champions a unifying act that pulls people together over party lines, with a fruitful outcome.
“With some of the polarization that we’re experiencing culturally, it’s like ‘Okay, I might not be able to sit down and talk with you about political things, or cultural things,’” Mattea explains. “‘But if we get in the dirt, and we work on this project together, we’re on the same side of something, and we are making something that’s real in the world—not just on the internet, or on the television. It is a real-world living thing we’re going to nurture together.’”
Mattea is an unabashed admirer of Nelson’s work with Promise of the Real. She credits him for his individuality as a person, writer, and bandleader—for forging his own path despite climbing up the ranks with a “considerable shadow.”
“When you hear him sing, you can go, ‘Of course, it’s Willie Nelson’s son,’ but he also has this other layer, and that’s the part that’s going to go on past the Willie influence,” Mattea explains. “He’s gonna go off on his own trajectory, and chart his own course. It’s really exciting to see somebody who can hold his own. From what I can tell, he seems to have a really good connection with his band that’s been together for a while. He is clearly the leader, but it’s very democratic—they all get a lot of credit. I’m thrilled for him, and am looking forward to seeing where he’s going to be in another 10 years.”
Watch Kathy Mattea perform Lukas Nelson’s “Turn Off The News (Build a Garden)” below. Check out Mattea’s upcoming tour dates here and keep up with Mountain Stage on the website.
See upcoming Kathy Mattea concerts HERE.