A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 15, 2008
Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Kathy Mattea was one of Nashville’s dependable country/pop hit makers. Her voice was soulful, and she’d often allow folk and bluegrass elements in her music, though she never strayed too far from the Nashville formula.
But like many female singers in modern corporate country — think Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood — Mattea at some point fell out of favor with the evil druids of 16th Avenue who control the Country Music Industrial Complex. It would be a nasty accusation to say that Nashville would callously dump a singer because of age (Mattea turns 50 next year), but that’s how things seem to work out now, isn’t it?
The good news is that Mattea still has that soulful voice, and, being free of commercial pressure, she’s at liberty to follow her creativity. And she’s done that quite capably with her new album, Coal. The bad news is that the album won’t get the airplay and won’t make the money it deserves.
Mattea is a native of West Virginia and the granddaughter of coal miners (on both sides of her family). She was moved by the tragedy of the 2006 Sago Mine disaster in her home state, in which 12 men were killed. So she took a batch of fine songs about the mining life by the likes of Jean Ritchie, Hazel Dickens (outright radicals you’d never hear on conservative Hot New Country radio!), Merle Travis, and others; grabbed Marty Stuart to produce and play on it; and made one powerful little bluegrass-soaked concept album.
Mattea sings about the extremely backbreaking work that is coal mining. She sings about a profession where danger is double and pleasures are few. Then there are the health hazards, which Mattea addresses in her a cappella version of Dickens’ wrenching “Black Lung,” which closes the album.
Mattea also tells of the economic hardships when the mines shut down. Ritchie’s “Blue Diamond Mines” recounts the story of one such impacted community: “Now the union is dead and they shake their heads/Well, mining has had its day/But they’re stripping off my mountaintop/And they pay me eight dollars a day.” The song even name checks “John L.” — Lewis, that is — president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1920 to 1960. With Stuart on mandolin and Loveless on vocal harmonies, the song is a bittersweet treat.
Even harder-hitting is “Lawrence Jones,” which was written by Si Kahn, a folk singer, political organizer, and son of a rabbi man. This is a song about a bloody 13-month strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, that began in 1973. According to a 2006 article in The Nation, "The miners went out on strike, and an escalating fight ensued between gun thugs hired by Duke Power and the men and women on the picket line. Finally, a Duke Power employee shot miner Lawrence Jones in the face one night and Jones died at the hospital.”
“There’s blood upon the contract like vinegar in wine/And there’s one man dead on that Harlan Country line,” Mattea sings.
Musically, the album drags a bit on slow, mournful songs like “Red-Winged Blackbird” and “Coming of the Roads” (both written by Billy Edd Wheeler.) And I’ve heard better versions of “Dark as a Dungeon.” Otherwise, Coal is a diamond.
Bonus! Mining for coal songs — my personal favorites:
1. “Dark as a Dungeon” by Merle Travis with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Though lots of people have recorded this Travis tune, his version on Will the Circle Be Unbroken? is my favorite. Honorable mention: Johnny Cash’s cover of the song on his live At Folsom Prison album.
2. “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Working in a coal mine doesn’t pay well, but it apparently gives you license to kill those who refuse to step aside when they see you comin’. Tennessee Ernie’s is the coolest version of this classic Travis song, but I also like Stan Ridgway’s oddball arrangement.
3. “Quecreek” by Buddy Miller. Like Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” this song was ripped from the headlines. On the day Buddy was finishing his Midnight and Lonesome album in 2002, nine Pennsylvania coal miners who had been trapped for three days were rescued. Buddy’s wife, Julie Miller, wrote this song, which appears at the end of the album.
4. “Last Train From Poor Valley” by Norman Blake. The mines shut down, a marriage fails, and brown-haired Becky is Richmond-bound.
5. “Working in a Coal Mine” by Lee Dorsey. This funky 1966 tune by New Orleans soul man Dorsey made mining sound cool and funky. But just like Rose Royce’s song about working at a car wash 10 years later, the record was better than the reality. Devo covered Dorsey’s song, too, but can you imagine anyone being allowed to work in a mine wearing those silly Devo hats?
6. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” by Loretta Lynn. Coal mining can’t be that bad if it spawned Loretta.
7. “Dream of a Miner’s Child” by The Stanley Brothers. The plot of this traditional tune is simple: A little girl has a nightmare about a mining disaster and begs her dad not to go to work, but he ignores her. Guess what happens.
8. “Paradise” by John Prine. The tale of Mr. Peabody’s coal mine in Muhlenberg County and the greatest strip-mining protest song ever written.
9. “Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean. Big John was the type of miner “Sixteen Tons” was written about: “Everybody knew you didn’t give no lip to Big John,” Jimmy drawls. Even though he’d killed a guy from Louisiana in a fight over a “Cajun queen,” John’s superhuman heroism in a cave-in redeems him. This is one of the greatest faux-folk songs from the era (late ’50s and early ’60s) that produced “The Battle of New Orleans,” “El Paso,” “Saginaw, Michigan,” “Long Black Veil,” and others.
10. “Timothy” by The Buoys. Just because you’re in a mining disaster doesn’t mean you have to start skipping meals.
Radio: You know dang well you’re going to hear a lot of these songs tonight (Friday) on the Santa Fe Opry, 10 p.m. on KSFR-FM 101.1.
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