My introduction to Kathy Mattea was courtesy of my parents and their Christmas music collection, which included her album Good News. The music was what you might expect of a gospel-y Christmas album, but what caught my attention and has held it ever since is the beauty and power of her voice. Rich, warm, and expressive, it's like an addictive drug that you keep coming back to for one more hit to stave off the pains of withdrawal. Just in time, Mattea has finally put out a follow-up to her 2005 Right Out of Nowhere.
Mattea has been collecting songs about mining and the Appalachian culture that surrounds it for many years, but it was the Sago Mine Disaster that finally prompted her to do the album she had only dreamed about. Coal is full of stories of miners, their families, and the impact that mining has had on Appalachia, told by some of the greatest songwriters in traditional music.
The album leads with two selections from traditional songwriter Jean Ritchie, "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore" and "Blue Diamond Mines." Both lament the physical and economic changes that mining affected on Appalachian communities, particularly when the mines were closed, leaving many without jobs or the connections to the outside world through the coal trains that would stop for their loads.
Singer/songwriter Billy Edd Wheeler's tune "Redwing Blackbird" is more metaphorical in its description of the miner's life. The arrangement chosen for this recording is dramatic in its sparse beauty. Mattea's vocals are backed with a delicately plucked acoustic guitar and a fiddle/violin, both of which mainly serve to add to the mood created by the sorrow in her voice.
Grassroots activists and songwriters Si Kahn and Utah Phillips provide side-by-side tracks on the album, "Lawrence Jones" and "Green Rolling Hills," respectively. "Lawrence Jones" is a dark and foreboding warning about the dangers of a miner's life, which is a sharp contrast to the light mood created by the arrangement of "Green Rolling Hills." Although both are laments, "Green Rolling Hills" is more like a gospel tune that speaks of dark times and yet carries an air of hope.
Wheeler uses color as a metaphor again in the song "Coal Tattoo":
"Well, somebody said, 'That's a strange tattoo
You have on the side of your head'
I said, 'That's the blue mark left by the coal
A little more and I'd a been dead'"
The arrangement of the song uses one of my favorite train song tropes — the frenetic energy of mandolin and fiddle to create a sense of a large engine chugging down the line. It's fitting for a song that tells the perspective of a miner escaping the life of the mines for something (hopefully) better somewhere else.
After a traditional instrumental interlude, "Sally in the Garden," performed by Stuart Duncan, the listener is given the flip side of "Coal Tattoo" — Darrel Scott's "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive." The lesson in the song is that even though some might try to get out of the mines and take safer jobs elsewhere, eventually those jobs will fail or go away, and they'll be forced to return to the mines, where it's likely they will stay until they die or are killed by mining accidents. It's grim, but also an honest reflection of the reality that many still face in the impoverished areas of Appalachia where the mines are often the only options for gainful employment without commuting hundreds of miles each day to work elsewhere. Mattea deftly conveys the resignation felt by those in that situation.
Merle Travis' "Dark as a Dungeon" is the song that initially inspired Mattea to begin to collect coal mining tunes. As with "Redwing Blackbird," the arrangement serves to focus the attention on the lyrics and the mood created by Mattea's vocals. The instrumentation shifts from the time-stopping mode of sustained piano chords in the first verse and chorus to a full band with the expected combination of guitar, mandolin, and hints of steel pedal guitar throughout the rest of the song. Befitting the theme of the album, it is a warning to the listener of the dangers of the mine, while retaining an element of hope for a better future.
Wheeler's last contribution to the album is "Coming of the Roads." The arrangement — beautifully plucked on acoustic guitar, accented by violin, and sung in the delicate way that Mattea pulls off so effortlessly — belies the anger expressed by the protagonist over the loss of a loved one to the lure of life outside of the hills made more accessible by the roads built by the mining companies. Unlike the rest of the album, this song is in the style of modern acoustic folk, which does not often address the themes presented here.
Finally, Mattea leaves us with a gem from the great songwriter activist Hazel Dickens, entitled "Black Lung." The dangers of the mines are not always in the mines themselves. Many miners suffer and die from coal workers' pneumoconiosis, or black lung, due to prolonged exposure to coal dust (over 10,000 American miners have died from this in the past ten years). Mattea sings the song a cappella, sending chills up and down the listener's spine both from the intensity of her voice and from the sad tale told by the song.
Coal is a beautifully arranged and produced album. The collection of songs fit well both with the theme and with each other. It is evident that Mattea and the other musicians on the album (Byron House, Bill Cooley, Stuart Duncan, and a handful of guests) have poured their heart and soul into these songs, making them their own in the process.
Coal is also an important album for our times. The Sago Mine Disaster is not the only tragedy that has struck mining communities in the past few decades, and they continue to be exploited for the wealth buried under the soil of the lands they love. Exploited by you and me, because we all benefit from the cheap energy produced by burning coal. Mattea offers these songs as a reminder of the real and present danger that miners face, even in this age of high-tech machinery and modern health care.