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Waxed - Record Review from Issue #74 March-April 2008

Burning questions

Kathy Mattea

Coal (Captain Potato)

A curious sponsor underwrites CNN’s election coverage, something called Americans For Balanced Energy Choices. The organization’s website says they are spending $35 million during the present electoral cycle to share their message — “Clean Coal. America’s Power.” — and to oppose global warming legislation.

By “clean coal” the 23 coal-based energy providers who underwrite this group — including the heirs to Mr. Peabody’s coal train — wish to argue that technology now makes it possible to burn coal without damaging the environment, at least not too much. And they mean to remind us that coal accounts for roughly 50 percent of the electricity we consume. (And doesn’t come from the Persian Gulf.)

Whatever the merits of scrubber technology may presently be, the mining of coal is a hard, dirty, violent business. It is not clean. It may be necessary — and this is a complicated policy debate we are, with luck, about to have. But it is not clean. If you live in or drive through the Appalachian coal country of West Virginia or Kentucky, a fine gray grit will cover your car. It will shade your house. In Kentucky the trucks hauling coal are allowed to be tens of tons heavier than any other vehicle on the road; each year, on those winding mountain highways, people die and are maimed when those trucks or their drivers fail. They are frightening, those big trucks, and they are in a hurry, for we have appetites which must be fed.

Hunger for coal will change our landscape forever.

Whole mountaintops are now being removed, streams damaged, ecosystems destroyed, though it is hard to know if the rest of the country notices. Or cares. (The coal industry argues mountaintop removal benefits residents by creating more buildable flat land, an argument that it is possible to make only if one values strip malls over wild flowers, wildlife, and quality of life. Many do.) Out west, where coal is more of a growth industry, they dig enormous pits into the earth, and great trains move the coal to where it will be burned.

The unionization of coal workers has provoked some of the most violent strikes in U.S. labor history. The national imagination is occasionally captured by the ordeal of trapped and dying miners.

This is not simple, nor so simple as I have made it. In a region where there are fewer and fewer jobs, coal mining pays tolerably well. Electricity has to come from somewhere. (I am not writing, after all, on a manual typewriter.) And mountaintop removal is a good bit safer for the workers running heavy equipment than boring tunnels into the earth ever will be.

All of which is rather a longer preamble than West Virginia native Kathy Mattea needs. Both of her grandfathers worked in the mines, her mother worked for the union, and she presumably grew up with some of the songs on her new album Coal. Still, it took singing at a memorial for the twelve miners killed at Sago and seeing vice president Al Gore’s global warming PowerPoint presentation at Vanderbilt University to goad Mattea into this album. She is releasing it independently.

Hers is not a strident voice. It is careful and carefully modulated, disciplined. It is tempting to think of the singer of Nanci Griffith’s “Love At The Five And Dime” and Tim O’Brien’s “Walk The Way The Wind Blows” as a female Don Williams. Like Williams, she is comfortable in the room and her performances have always been easy to listen to, nuanced, centered.

She is someone with whom you might have a long conversation, no matter who you are, and both of you would learn something. Or, at least, so her voice sounds. So she seems. So, in particular, this album seems.

Coal is not, then, an angry record. It is not cathartic, nor dogmatic. Nor is it passionless, not hardly. But it is a complicated conversation, one she seeks gently to engage all of us in.

That is her gift, and her limitation.

Nor is it a deep excursion into the sad catalogue of traditional coal mining laments. She has chosen fairly obvious songs, including Hazel Dickens’ “Black Lung” and Jean Ritchie’s “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” (and wisely not John Prine’s “Paradise”). Si Kahn’s “Lawrence Jones”, about a young Harlan County, Kentucky, miner killed in an early ’70s strike, is given a sad, respectful reading, though there is also an edge of fury to her vocals. Utah Phillips, no mean polemicist, is represented by “Green Rolling Hills”, and not something more didactic.

But by far her strongest take — soaring, profoundly moving — is Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Red-Winged Black Bird”. It’s a beautiful melody line, but it is the richness of the metaphor which seems most to engage her.

Producer Marty Stuart has set her voice against subtle, beautifully played acoustic instruments, anchored by Byron House’s calmly elegant bass lines. There is no fire to the solos, nor should there be. This whole, immensely sad process is about contemplation. About dialogue, no matter how overused that word has become.

And so, when Mattea gets to Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”, she grasps firmly the song’s duality, the region’s challenge: Work or starve; leave for prosperity in an unfamiliar landscape or stay home and suffer other privations. Her voice comes heavy and rich.

It’s not all a success. Billy Edd Wheeler’s third contribution, “Coming Of The Roads”, plays to Mattea’s more prosaic instincts, and she succumbs to the temptation to fill her voice with shuddering drama. She finds nothing to add to Merle Travis’ “Dark As A Dungeon”.

But it ends well, Marty Stuart’s graceful mandolin leading into a spare, a cappella reading of Dickens’ “Black Lung”. It is a lament for the broken, for the cost.

And it is a beginning – a brave beginning — a way to start a conversation without inviting a fistfight or slamming any doors. If anybody listens.

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Originally Featured in Issue #74 March-April 2008

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