Kathy Mattea - Coal

This appeared in The Washington Post - March 28, 2008

Singer Kathy Mattea grew up in West Virginia; both of her grandfathers were coal miners and her mother worked for the United Mine Workers. After 12 miners died in the Sago mine explosion in 2006, she resolved to make an album of the coal-mining songs she had been stockpiling for years. Coal combines the mountain string-band sound of her roots with the studio polish of her Nashville stardom far better than might be expected.

The album climaxes with Mattea's take on Hazel Dickens's classic protest song, "Black Lung." Dickens sang it in a high, lonesome twang that was as unpolished as it was eerily powerful. Mattea, framed by producer Marty Stuart's mandolin intro and Stuart Duncan's fiddle conclusion, delivers the same lyrics in a controlled, pleasurable alto that meets the listener halfway, unlike Dickens's vocal. It may not be better, but it is more accessible.

Mattea's song choices are astute: You can't beat Jean Ritchie's "The L & N Don't Stop Here Anymore," Merle Travis's "Dark as a Dungeon" or Darrell Scott's "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive." The originals appear on last year's terrific box set "Music of Coal: Mining Songs From the Appalachian Coalfields," but Mattea adds a precision and warmth that make it easier to enter this rich but hard-to-get-at musical vein.

By Geoffrey Himes

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