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Kathy Mattea - Coal
By: Jolene Downs, CSO Contributing Journalist  
5/25/08

Kathy Mattea is an extremely versatile artist who packs a very large emotional punch with her music. Her latest album, Coal, is an incredible musical journey that takes you deep into the heart of the Appalachian Mountain region. This album has quickly climbed to the top of my list for favorite mountain music album. It is also very high on my list of favorite albums of all time. It digs down to the bare bones of the music and lays it all out in the open for the listener to become a part of the whole musical story. The acoustically themed project honors the coal miners of our country, calling attention to how dangerous their job can be. Long hours, disease and death are often the payment for the job they do and it is something handed down from father to son through the generations in the mining regions of the country.

Mattea chose to do this album as a tribute to her place and her people. She grew up near Charleston, West Virginia with a family heritage in mining. After first hearing "Dark as a Dungeon" at 19, Mattea quietly dreamed about doing this kind of an album and as she continued along her musical career path the mining and mountain songs were quietly cataloged and filed away for the right time. The Sago Mine Disaster brought back memories of another mine disaster in 1968 where 78 miners were killed. 'Coal' became the outlet to channel her emotions. The songs she chose to record make up a musical photo album of what the coal mining community is all about.

One of the very first things I noticed as I started listening to the album is the sound of the upright bass keeping the rhythm. It reminded me of how overproduced and electronic music has become. The pure sound of the instruments was really refreshing. The first song is "The L & N Don't Stop Here Anymore" and has an upbeat tempo. It tells the story of someone who has escaped the mines by getting an education, which was pretty much the only escape available except for death. They are reminiscing about things from their childhood and how they used to think their father's skin was black as the coal. Years later, after the mine had closed they were surprised to find that the skin was actually white as snow. The song really sets a great stage for what is to come.

Patty Loveless joins Mattea on background harmonies for "Blue Diamond Mines." This song tells the story of miners that lose their jobs because a mine closes. Most have been there all their lives and they know no other way of life. What is to become of them? The message comes through that they are survivors and if you give them anything at all to earn a living, they will make it work.

Tim O'Brien and his sister Molly O'Brien provide guest vocals on "Green Rolling Hills." This is another song that strongly emphasizes the sounds of the upright bass. Mattea sings with such a passion that you find yourself standing on the hills of West Virginia she sings about. While times may be hard and she needs to go elsewhere to make a living, the green rolling hills are the closest thing to heaven that she knows and she'll always come back.

"Coal Tattoo" is a favorite song of mine on the album and has a driving energy to it. "Dark as a Dungeon" is a classic and fits well in this project. Another classic mountain song that you will find is "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive." That one always gets to me when I hear it. But the biggest boom on the album is the very last song. I'm sure they chose it to close things down because there is simply nothing that could follow this amazing rendition of "Black Lung/Coal." Mattea sings the powerful lyrics a capella, choosing to let her voice carry all the emotions and irony that the song entails. Not only is the story of a miner who is fighting the disease and what it does to his family incredibly moving, her voice has a power and range that is astounding.

If you can listen to this album and not be moved in some way, I just don't know what to say. It is truly a musical masterpiece and one I highly recommend. It is produced by Marty Stuart and released on the Captain Potato Record Label.


Order your copy right here!


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