Kathy Mattea: Coal
“It’s got to come from the heart if you want it work” is a line Kathy Mattea sings in one her country hits. Mattea has always been good at that, whether she’s singing about the love of an elderly couple in Where’ve You Been, talking about the changes of moving on in Leaving West Virginia, or the changes of life, friends, and time in Roses. Drawing on folk and bluegrass as her way into the country music mainstream, she’s always remained a bit of a maverick in that world, holding out for and holding on to songs of substance, songs of the heart.
In her latest project, Coal, they are songs which come also from the landscape and the land where Mattea grew up. She’s from West Virginia; both her grandfathers were coal miners, and her mother worked for the miner’s union, the UMWA. Though she heard the music of such mountain musicians as Hazel Dickens, it wasn’t the sort of style she felt she could do, or was called to do. Nevertheless, the power of the songs struck her, and she began to take note of them. One of the songs on this album, Dark as a Dungeon, Mattea first heard when she was nineteen.
Then, in 2006, twelve miners lost their lives in at the Sago Mines in West Virginia. “When I was about nine, 78 miners were killed in The Farmington Disaster, near Fairmont in 1968. When Sago happened, I got catapulted back to that moment in my life and I thought, ‘I need to do something with this emotion, and maybe this album is the place to channel it’. And so I knew the time was right,” she says.
Coal mining is a tapestry of hard work, family, beloved yet harsh landscape, facing death every day, facing life everyday, hard choices, hard times, and good times and hope and love as well. All these find their places in the songs Mattea chose, and in the ways she chooses to sing them. Coal camp childhood turning into adult reality moves through the opener, The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore, which is framed in a fast driving bluegrass sound. Red Winged Blackbird is a piece of poetry and vivid visual imagery about death and the mines; Green Rolling Hills, though it’s about West Virginia, reminds too of the green hills of Ireland and Scotland to which many miners trace their family ties. Family ties and ties to the mine form the bedrock of You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive, a song that’s bound to haunt you long after it’s done. The other songs on the disc are equally varied, and equally strong.
Mattea is an artist in service to the song, one who uses her gifts to further the connecting and spiritual aspects of music. It’d be easy to go over top with some of these songs, or not to go deeply enough into them. No worries about that with Mattea and the musicians she’s invited along on this journey, who include producer Marty Stuart, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and guitarist Bill Cooley. Tim O’Brien, Molly O’Brien, and Patty Loveless add background vocals.
It’s Mattea’s vision, voice, and emotion which center this powerful music, however. An artist who’s always been open to dimensions of music beyond what’s on the surface, she knows she had help with that, that her work is part of a continuing story. “I think there’s a mystery there: that somewhere in me, in my DNA, there’s my great grandmother singing, and my grandmother, and my people, singing through me, with me,” she says. “Maybe that’s why it didn’t feel like work.”
Just another thought: quite probably, the electricity by which you are reading this was generated, in part, by coal.
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