Kathy Mattea's Coal Fueled By An Emotional Kinship

This appeared in USA Today - April 6, 2008

Kathy Mattea considered herself a grandchild of coal. Both the singer's grandfathers — one an Italian immigrant, the other of Welsh descent — had worked the West Virginia mines, but Mattea thought she had a generation's distance as she started choosing material for Coal, her new album of mining songs.

"I expected a set of stories," says Mattea, 48. "What I found was a connection to my own history, my own family, my own people."

Mattea, who placed 15 consecutive top 10 singles on the country charts in the mid-'80s and early '90s, had her best-known hits with storytelling songs such as "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses" and "Where've You Been." But the tales in songs such as "Coal Tattoo" and "Red-Winged Blackbird" struck closer to home.

"I thought I'd be slightly detached," she says. "Instead, it came from the inside out. That was the piece I didn't expect, to feel so much a sense that it was my place to tell the story. This record, it just reached out and took me."

Fellow country singer Marty Stuart produced Coal. "I saw the integrity with which she was approaching it," Stuart says, "and I thought, 'Man, this is not going to be a fashion statement. This is going to be something she lives.' "

The idea for Coal took shape after the 2006 mining disaster in Sago, West Virginia, in which a dozen miners died.

"That really affected me emotionally," Mattea says. "When I was 9, there was another big (West Virginia) disaster where miners were killed," the 1968 Farmington explosion that killed 78. "I think some part of me was reliving that, processing old emotions."

Country music has a rich tradition of coal songs, comparable to its catalogs of murder ballads and railroad tunes. Some songs on Coal, such as Merle Travis' "Dark as a Dungeon," are more than a half-century old. Others, such as Darrell Scott's 1997 chilling "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive," are more recent.

In her search for material, Mattea dug through songs from scratchy 78s and CDs by Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle. "I have hundreds of songs on my iPod, and they're still being written," she says. About half the album's songs eventually came from three sources: West Virginia songwriter/folklorist Billy Edd Wheeler and folk singers Jean Ritchie and Hazel Dickens. One, an a cappella rendition of "Black Lung," about the death of Dickens' brother, provides a poignant finale.

"It took me six months to learn to sing that song," Mattea says, "and I still feel like I'm just scratching the surface."

The songs Mattea found ring with hardship and hope, with an attachment to the land for better or for worse, and with an inescapable intimacy with danger and early death. "It's such a basic expression that we all resonate with it," Mattea says. "The struggle to be heard, the struggles against injustice."

Miners are like firefighters or police officers, "anybody who's in a high-risk profession," she says. "The whole family just holds their breath every day when they go to work. That's part of why the emotions run high. A big part of you is on hold all the time, because you know someone you love is at risk."

By Brian Mansfield

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