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 ?