Kathy Mattea: Coal

This appeared on Rodeo Attitude News - March 30, 2008

Kathy Mattea digs deep into the history of coal-mining, for her new album, Coal and takes her career to new heights in doing so.

In a throwback to the 1970's and 80's it's a real "concept" album. It's NOT Country music for the Billboard charts except, possibly, in the first week when sales of any great artist's long awaited return produce a sales spike.

But it is a lesson for those Nashville "musicians" and "artists" who's craving for fame and fortune quickly erodes any notions they had about caring for Country music.

Here, the music matters most. Coal is unlikely to make Mattea a fortune, but she has been able to call in the likes of Patty Loveless, Marty Stuart and Tim and Molly O'Brien to get the job done. They deserve fulsome praise.

This is REAL Country music: well used fiddles, banjo's and acoustic guitars; lyrics which mine deep below Nashville's usual superficial and cliched emotions; vocals that speak of those emotions and quality that is sadly lacking in most of today's Nashville output.

Mattea was born and raised in "coal country". Her parents grew up in coal camps, her grandfathers were miners, and her mother worked for the local UMWA. And, like most young folks of her time, she did her best to get out of West Virginia for a "better life".

Mattea has always retained something more solid than what the dollar-hungry Nashville machine requires. This album is fruit of that labour. It is way more than a collection of songs about coal. This is VERY personal.

For all those who left the coal fields, there were more left behind. "Coming Of The Roads", written by Billy Ed Wheeler is the beautiful and heartbreaking song of one of those left to watch the mountain-top mining stripped away the trees and leave the hills like a black moonscape.

This is the most emotional track on the album, and the best. Mattea's voice soars across the lyrics superbly, powerful in a gentle way and almost pathetic as she reaches the tag line. It is, simply brilliant.

Mattea sings "Green Rolling Hills" with a wistful voice which portrays the sadness of leaving your roots brilliantly. Written by Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard and Bruce Phillips, this is a song about leaving, and remembering. There's pride here etched starkly by Tim and Molly O'Brien's harmonies.

I thought that when Brad Paisley sang "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" it was the definitive version. I was wrong. Mattea takes Darrell Scott's song of Kentucky and turns it into a classic.

This is so well understated that it has a power that doesn't require embellishment. Superb.

Only someone who can truly sing would chance singing a song unaccompanied, but Mattea carries it off to close the album. "Black Lung" written by Hazel Dickens is haunting here. Millions of miners the world over have died of "black lung" and in some places, it is only now that government's are acknowledging it as a disease. It's a fitting closer for a somber and thought provoking album.

Elsewhere, Merle Travis' "Dark as a Dungeon" is a classic which has been sung by dozens of singers from Harry Belafonte to Pete Seeger. Mattea's gentle, almost sotto voce treatment makes the song more sinister, more threatening than most versions.

There isn't a weak track here. From the instrumental "Sally in the Garden" - Celtic music so beloved by Mattea through the years and so strongly connected to the US mining industry - to "Lawrence Jones", a true ballad of death on the coal face and the pain of it's community, every song has a place, a part to play in a bigger whole. (No verbal pun intended).

"Red-Winged Blackbird" is almost a folk-song and Country fans often spurn such music should do so with caution: folk music is where Country music has it's true roots. Mattea's voice here is astonishing. It's only when you hear someone who can truly sing that you realise how poor so many of today's "Country singers" really are.

The high speed bluegrass feel of "Coal Tattoo" belies the song's somber message ... that few ever left coalmining unscathed either by bruises and scars or by disease.

"Blue Diamond Mines" written by Jean Ritchie is a bitter memory of how hard miners worked and how little they were paid for the "black gold". The harmonies are immense as is the mandolin of Marty Stuart.

"The L & N Don't Stop Here Anymore" is filled by fiddles and banjos right out of the Appalachian Mountains. It's a picture from 2008 of a time a century earlier.

It is no exaggeration to say that, whether this sells a millions or just a few dozen, it will be a benchmark album in Country music history.

For someone like me, a preacher's son who grew up on the coalfields of Northern England, it evokes memories. Listening to the music, I can see the blackened faces as the pits emptied at shift-change; I can hear the siren's call as the wheels turned and the lifts plummeted to the coal faces; I can hear the cries of the anguished over those who were lost miles below the ground.

The same will be true of anyone who knew places like that..

My View: Roots Country at it's absolute best. The pinnacle of Mattea's illustrious career!

By John Lewis

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