My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Coal’

Kathleen Alice (Kathy) Mattea was born June 21, 1959, in South Charleston, West Virginia, the daughter of a coal miner and steeped in the lore and culture of the coal mines. While some think of her as a country singer and others regard her as folk, bluegrass or neo-Celtic, I prefer to think of Kathy Mattea as a quintessentially American singer and just leave it at that.

While Kathy had an extended run of top-twenty chart success running from 1986 to early 1993, Kathy’s records became increasingly more interesting once the focus on chart success subsided and she focused more on music she found interesting. With Coal, Kathy reached her career apogee, at least as far as artistic success is concerned.

Coal has always been a subject of great interest, whether to folklorists, economists or politicians. Coal is one of America’s greatest natural resources and the source of heated debate on how to mine it, how to utilize it and indeed whether or not to mine and utilize it all. While I have always been either an urban or suburban dweller, my grandfather, Otto Jetzork, was a coal miner who died at the young age of forty-three from “black lung” disease, so at a young age I started reading about coal miners and coal miners.

Ms. Mattea selected an excellent group of songs for her album and an excellent group of pickers including Marty Stuart (mandolin, acoustic guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle, banjo) and Byron House (acoustic bass).

The lead-off track is “The L&N Don’t Stop Here In Anymore”, a Jean Ritchie composition that some may remember as the title track of a New Coon Creek Girls album from 1994. Quite a few artists have recorded the song including Johnny Cash. Kathy does an excellent job with the song which, with slightly modified lyrics, could apply to the fate of many company towns, whatever the industry

I was born and raised at the mouth of Hazard Hollow
The coal cars rolled and rumbled past my door
But now they stand in a rusty row all empty
Because the L & N don’t stop here anymore

This is followed by another Jean Ritchie song, “Blue Diamond Mines”. I think I heard the Johnson Mountain Boys do this song on the radio but I wasn’t very familiar with the song; since I find Jean Ritchie’s voice rather annoying I’ve tended to avoid her recordings. Given the quality of these two songs, I may reconsider and seek out some of her recordings. Kathy, as always, is excellent. This track features vocal harmony by another Kentucky girl, Patty Loveless:

You old black gold you’ve taken my lung
Your dust has darkened my home
And now I am old and you’ve turned your back
Where else can an old miner go

“Red-Wing Blackbird” is the first of three Billy Edd Wheeler compositions. Billy Edd is one of America’s few true ‘renaissance men’ and I urge you to take the time to find out more about him. “Red Wing Blackbird” is a very sad and mournful song with very minimal instrumental accompaniment:

Oh, can’t you see that pretty little bird
Singing with all his heart and soul?
He’s got a blood red spot on his wing
And all the rest of him’s black as coal

Of all the colors I ever did see
Red and black are the ones I dread
For when a man spills blood on the coal
They carry him down from the coal mines dead

Si Kahn was an activist in the civil rights movement and the founder of the Grassroots Movement, a political advocacy group. He is also an excellent songwriter as “Lawrence Jones” proves. This song is about the death of a Lawrence Jones, a striking coal miner, killed by gunfire from a mining company foreman.

“Green Rolling Hills” is a collaborative effort by the trio of Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens and Bruce “Utah” Phillips. More nostalgic than bitter, this song is a look back at childhood and the home left behind. Tim and Mollie O’Brien provide the vocal harmonies for this song.

“Coal Tattoo” is probably my favorite song on the album. A Billy Edd Wheeler composition that originally appeared on his 1964 album Memories of America: Ode To The Little Brown Shack Out Back, Kathy doesn’t quite equal the fervor of the original but does delivers an effective. I love Byron House’s upright bass playing on this song, and Stuart Duncan’s fiddle effectively drives the song. Some may remember this song as a track on a Kingston Trio album:

Somebody said, “That’s a strange tattoo you have on the side of your head.”
I said, “That’s the blueprint left by the coal. A little more and I’d been dead.
Well, I love the rumble and I love the dark. I love the cool of the slate,
And it’s on down the new road, lookin’ for a job. This travelin’ nook in my head.

“Sally In The Garden”is a short (44 seconds) instrumental tack performed by Stuart Duncan on banjo.

“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” comes from the pen of Darrell Scott, a contemporary singer-songwriter and session musician. This song reflects the dead-end that life in a coal mining town often represents. Again, Kathy gives an effective performance. Fred Newell tastefully augments the core band with his steel guitar.

Being the music buff that I always have been, I encountered the Merle Travis album Folk Songs From The Hills in my Dad’s record collection at an early age (a year or two before Kathy was born). As folk music, per se, it is ersatz, but taken on its own terms it is an excellent album I would commend to everyone. The two most famous songs from the album are “Sixteen Tons” (a mega-hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford) and the song Kathy has selected “Dark As A Dungeon”. “Dark As A Dungeon” is a lament about the poor working conditions faced by coal miners in their quest to make a living. The song probably reached its greatest audience when Johnny Cash recorded it on his Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison album. While Kathy’s interpretation doesn’t have the dramatic presence and world-weariness of Johnny Cash’s version, she presents the song well

Chorus: It’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew
Where the danger is double and the pleasures are few
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines
It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mines

Last verse: I hope when I’m gone and the ages shall roll
My body will blacken and turn into coal
Then I’ll look from the door of my heavenly home
And pity the miner a-digging my bones

“The Coming of The Roads” is the third Billy Edd Wheeler composition on the album. The title track of one of Billy Edd’s albums, the song was recorded by Judy Collins and by Peter, Paul & Mary on albums that sold very well indeed. In a sense the song is about the loss of love, but it also is a metaphor for a common dilemma, at what price does one sell one’s soul

Now that our mountain is growing with people hungry for wealth
How come it’s you that’s a-going
And I’m left all alone by myself?
We used to hunt the cool caverns deep in our forest of green
Then came the road and the tavern and you found a new love it seems

Once I had you and the wildwood, now it’s just dusty roads
And I can’t help but blamin’ your going
On the coming, the coming of the roads

The album concludes with an a cappella performance of “Black Lung” (written by Hazel Dickens) which then flows into a Marty Stuart instrumental composition titled “Coal”. My Mom was fifteen when her father died of black lung disease. She remembers him spitting up blood and coughing up pieces of his lungs. While not quite as graphic as my Mom’s memories, I think that Hazel Dickens does as well at describing the horrors of the disease as we are ever likely to hear. Kathy Mattea succeeds in conveying the horrors of black lung disease quite well

Black lung, black lung, oh your hand’s icy cold
As you reach for my life and you torture my soul
Cold as that water hole down in the dark cave
Where I spent my life’s blood diggin’ my own grave

He’s had more hard luck than most men could stand
The mines was his first love but never his friend
He’s lived a hard life and hard he’ll die
Black lung’s done got him his time is nigh

Black lung, black lung, oh you’re just bidin’ your time
Soon all of this sufferin’ I’ll leave behind
But I can’t help but wonder what God had in mind
To send such a devil to claim this soul of mine

Coal may not have been a great commercial success (charted at #64 on the country charts and reached #1 on the bluegrass charts), and it spawned no hit singles, but it was an artistic success of the highest order. Great songs, a great singer, great musicians and effective arrangements – really, what more could you want ?
Grade: A+

7 responses to “Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Coal’

  1. Jonathan Pappalardo September 28, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Fantastic review, Paul. I knew you the right person to review this album.

    I’ve owned Coal since its release, but haven’t been able to fully appreciate it. I think it’s because I was in college at the time and not able to dive into it enough. With my sincere admiration for Calling Me Home, I finally found a way to appreciate what a masterwork this really is. I still have to listen to it more, though.

  2. Ben Foster September 29, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    Paul, how do you feel Calling Me Home compares with Coal? I’m curious.

    • Paul W Dennis September 29, 2012 at 10:44 pm

      I just obtained CALLING ME HOME today so I’ve only listened to about three tracks thus far. I’ll let you know once I’ve listened to it about three times through

  3. Razor X September 30, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    I know I’m in the minority here, but I really don’t like this album nearly as much as a lot of people do. I don’t know why; I do appreciate the artistic statement she’s trying to make. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a huge Kathy Mattea fan to begin with.

    • Paul W Dennis September 30, 2012 at 9:33 pm

      To Razor X: I think that the fact that this is actually a folk album, rather than a country album, may have something to do with it. I’ve always loved American and English/Irish/Scottish folk music and this actually falls within that genre more than it does Country or Americana

      Moreover, there’s nothing really modern about these songs. With few exceptions, these are songs from 40+ years ago, back when songwriters really cared about telling their stories well. To a listener of modern country music, these songs must sound like they came from a distant time, or perhaps another planet entirely

      To Ben Foster: I had CALLING ME HOME in my CD player all day today. It sounds like, and feels like, a continuation of COAL. I like COAL more mostly because I think the songs on COAL are better songs. That said, I’d give CALLING ME HOME an “A” – it’s a fine album

  4. Jonathan Pappalardo October 1, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    Glad you like CALLING ME HOME, Paul. It’s my favorite album of the year, so far. I so need to dig into COAL more.

    When I was first liking CALLING ME HOME, I was so afraid it was going to receive poor reviews along the lines of ‘not as good as COAL.’ But I’m so glad its been so well received. It so deserves all the high praise on its own merits, a continuation on themes of COAL or not.

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