Kathy Mattea’s Coal was released on April 1st, but I just received my copy a few days ago. The concept of this collection of classic coal miner covers was initially inspired by the Sago Mine disaster, but gradually evolved into a tribute to the coal miners in Kathy’s home state of West Virginia as well as a commentary on the economic and environmental issues surrounding the coal industry. The album includes liner notes by West Virginia author Homer Hickman.
Like Kathy, I’m an Appalachian girl (Mattea’s performance at the Charleston Sternwheel Regatta when I was 12 years old was technically my first concert) and thus very familiar with the debate over mountaintop removal’s negative effect on the environment versus the central role coal mining plays in WV’s livelihood. It’s been very strange to see her album drawing the attention of USA Today, No Depression, Songs: Illinois, and Largehearted Boy among others to what is a very important topic in my local scene but often ignored on a national scale…at least until ABC News recently took a swipe at Massey Energy’s ties to the WV Supreme Court (or rather when Massey’s CEO took a swipe at ABC’s cameraman!). The matter hits even closer to home for Mattea, because both of her grandfathers worked in coal mines.
Though I loved Mattea’s music during the peak of her popularity – I still think “Where’ve You Been” from Willow In The Wind is one of the prettiest songs ever written – she lost me a little in the past decade as she attempted to stay involved with the peppy pop painted mutation that once was the country music industry. But with Coal, Kathy returns to the soulful blue collar commiseration that first drew people like me to her music and best showcases her strong albeit stoic voice.
The opening covers of Jean Ritchie’s “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” and “Blue Diamond Mines” followed by Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Red-Winged Black Bird” set the tone for the album, which is mostly comprised of songs that directly address the hard lives of coal miners. Other songs in this vein are Si Kahn’s “Lawrence Jones” – the tale of a Harlan County, Kentucky miner killed in a 1970s strike – and Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”. Mattea’s rendering of Wheeler’s “The Coming Of The Roads” shifts the focus to the devastated environment, and she also tackles the traditional “Sally In The Garden” (covered twice on Smithsonian Folkways’ Classic Old Time Fiddle compilation).
But the track that stands out most to me is Kathy’s heartfelt rendition of “Green Rolling Hills”, a song originally by West Virginia native Hazel Dickens and folk singer Utah Phillips. The latter is probably best known to my generation for his collaborations with Ani Difranco. I’m by no means patriotic, but hearing Kathy sing this ode to both the beauty and the poverty of West Virginia made me feel a little pride about my birthplace. A Hazel Dickens’ medley, “Black Lung/Coal”, serves as the mournful a capella finale – led by producer Marty Stuart’s lovely mandolin solo.
I don’t know if this album will appeal to the masses, as I’m obviously biased due to my locality as well as my affinity for folk and country music. But Kathy Mattea’s Coal one of the most moving collections I’ve personally heard in a long time.