A Canary In A Coal Mine

This appeared in Pop Matters - April 3, 2008

The back story goes like this. As the granddaughter of coal miners, Kathy Mattea deeply understands the effect coal mining has had on human lives and rural communities. As an active environmentalist who has toured with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Mattea intellectually comprehends the ecological devastation coal mining has had on her Appalachian mountain home. The Grammy Award-winning country music star has just released a concept album about coal that includes a dozen traditional and contemporary tunes that reveal the high personal and public costs incurred in pursuit of cheap fossil fuel.

The real question is, despite Mattea’s good intentions and impeccable credentials, is the album any good? The answer is a definite yes. It doesn’t matter if Mattea’s grandparents were coal miners any more than if they were city clerks or dairy farmers. Authenticity is an overrated commodity. There are plenty of bad records by real people. There are also plenty of terrible albums by card-carrying Sierra Club do-gooders whose belief in a green world is second to none. Mattea may claim to have coal mining in her blood and bleed whenever a mountaintop is sheared for ore, but that doesn’t really matter.

What matters is the music, and the music is terrific. To begin with, Mattea had the good sense to choose Marty Stuart to produce the disc. Stuart’s an incredibly gifted country music talent whose poetic sensibility infuses Coal with a wondrous depth and luminosity. He puts Mattea’s voice in the forefront of the mix where it rings like a bell with the lyrics always clearly presented. Stuart also plays a vibrant guitar, mandolin, and mandola, and has assembled a crackerjack band that includes Stuart Duncan (fiddle, mandolin, banjo) and Byron House (bass) to assist Mattea’s regular backup group of Bill Cooley (guitar), John Catchings (cello), and Randy Leago (keyboards, accordion).

Next, Mattea assembled a first-rate batch of songs by topnotch songwriters that include Jean Ritchie, Merle Travis, Hazel Dickens, Utah Phillips, Si Kahn, and Darrell Scott. The titles include bluegrass standards like "The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore," country classics like "Dark as the Dungeon," old folk tunes like "Sally in the Garden," and brilliant but more obscure compositions, such as the plaintive "Blue Diamond Mines" (which features Patty Loveless and Stuart on harmony vocals) and the eerie "You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive."

Mattea possesses a rich, smoky voice that simultaneously adds a sweetness and gravitas to the material. One might refer to her as a canary in a coal mine as she warns of the danger that is always part of a miner’s life and the instability that threatens a community which depends on mining for its economic well-being. When Mattea sings acapella on the lamentation "Black Lung," she croons the list of ills as if she’s a Greek goddess making pronouncements on tragedy. There’s a nobility in Mattea’s recitation that reveals the dignity of suffering and the foolishness of having to do so for the greed of uncaring strangers. Coal must have been the rock that Sisyphus rolled.

There have been a variety of hit songs about coal mining. Think of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s deep vocals on "Sixteen Tons," Lee Dorsey’s funky "Working in a Coal Mine," and even the high squeals of the Bee Gees on "New York Mining Disaster 1941," best known by its chorus, "Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones." In a perfect world, Coal would join them on top of the charts. The current pop music climate suggests that this will not be the case, but this album deserves high praise for its beauty and artistic achievement. [Rating 8 out of 10 stars]

By Steve Horowitz

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