Review Summary: Mining For Coal Strikes Gold
Every so often I listen to music that reminds me of its power to connect people of very dissimilar backgrounds. And when I am reminded of that power my body swells and sometimes I dance in a fury, sometimes I smile wide, and sometimes my heart aches and I cry. And my experience with Kathy Mattea’s ‘Coal’ and ‘Calling Me Home’ had a few moments where my eyes could not control themselves.
Usually when I review albums I go in knowing nothing about its intentions or its history. This is not deliberate but I do like the music to speak for itself. But I had read somewhere that all the songs on Kathy Mattea’s ‘Coal’ & ‘Calling Me Home’, were related to mining as she comes from a family of miner’s. And these albums were recorded in response to the mining’s disaster that occurred in 2006 in WV. So I could argue that this knowledge led me to feel that her singing was more heartfelt and personal because of that history, but I can’t say that with any truth. My great grandparents were miners on my dad’s side but that tradition was not passed down I have no direct experience with mining culture myself but I do experience music. And what a beautiful tribute to that culture and those people who do live and thrive in mining communities these two albums are. Again, it speaks to the power of song and how it connects all of us. Both are sumptuous albums of well chosen and crafted songs with a light hand on the production. Everyone playing on these two albums are pulling their weight and nobody feels to being showing off, except for the songs themselves. Song that feature such GREAT lyrics as,
“Hello, my name is coal,
And around here I’m the queen
Some say I’m cheap and easy
Oh, but they still bow to me.
Be careful, I’ll break up your home
And I’ll steal away your soul.
Let me introduce myself
Hello, my name is coal.”
I mentioned crying earlier, and ‘Agate Hills’ off of ‘Calling Me Home’ was one track that got to me. As I listened to it I was struck by the thought that while it sounds nothing like Portuguese fado or the Cape Verdean morna, I swore I heard those traditions somewhere in the roots of that song. I also heard the traditions of the the Irish air. Likewise ‘Coming of the Road’ also had me a little watery around the eyeballs.
I can also admit that I played the entire album ‘Calling Me Home’ once, and then played it instantly again, and then, yes, a third time. Maybe I was trying to find a way to convince myself the album could not be as good as it sounded, hunting for a flaw in the gem as it were. But I found none. I found no flaw in ‘Coal’ either. And I was playing them while cleaning house and they seemed to provide some comfort I didn’t know I needed. So I can only imagine what they do for people in mining cultures who know these songs and know what they speak of.
A few months back I entertained Suzy Boggus’ two CD ‘American Folk Songbook’ and while that album is pretty damn good as a starter course to the Americana song tradition, compared to these two pieces, it feels easy, familiar, and safe in its song choice and production. And I don’t feel the connection of singer to song in what Suzy sings there as much as I do with what Kathy sings here.
The ‘Calling Me Home’ opener, ‘A Far Cry’ may speak of a longing for Virginia but you could replace Virginia with any state and the feeling is clear,
“It’s a far cry from here to Virginia
but I’d crawl every inch of that ground”
And ‘Coal’ opens with ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’ a wish-song from father to child hoping that they will stay in school so as to not have to suffer work in the mines their whole life. But again you could replace the mines with any profession one’s parents might not see as noble. I know of MANY stories of parents wishing a better life for their children. And this is the beauty of music and poetry at its best. The more specific you get the more universal you become. It may not make for big chart hits, but you become more personal. And these two album speaking of mining culture, speak to the universal stories or working, struggling, change, the progress of time… I just want to spend the whole review just raving about the music and how it made my spirit feel.
Sometimes, with bluegrass/folk records I find they come off feeling to hip, especially with the bluegrass/folk revival of groups like The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons who, while technically decent, seem to be playing as though harmonizing is the new fad and banjos and mandolins are required to look hip. I can’t speak to their knowledge and history of the folk and bluegrass traditions, for they may have encyclopedic knowledge, I just don’t hear it when they play. And that may be because they are young. But even The Chieftains’ star-studded, ‘Down The Old Plank Road’ felt too cool and hip and well, Chieftains. It was a fun record as it tried to link Irish and Appalachian cultures but it lacked the quiet knowledge a life spent living these songs gives you. For example, compare that album’s version of ‘Dark As a Dungeon’ with guest vocals by Vince Gil to Mattea’s version on ‘Coal’. The Chieftains give a beautiful rendering but Mattea’s is more sobering and cautionary.
I should also say, just to toot my own horn, I am pleased that I actually know the song ‘Black Lung’ was written by bluegrass icon Hazel Dickens who had similar roots in mining culture and activism. It gave myself a grin at my miniscule knowledge of bluegrass traditions.
I don’t know what else to say other than every track is just wonderful. All the songs, even the rollicking ‘My Name Is Coal’, retain a haunting quality I sometimes find in the best Celtic music. And I am again reminded of how closely this sound harkens to that of traditional Irish folk songs, or rather, how the two traditions are related. So, let me be clear, this is not pop country. This is real deal country/bluegrass. If you want the radio friendly Taylor Swift (who is as far from country music as one might get and still get labeled country music) or Rascall Flatts it will not be found anywhere on these albums. And for me, that is what makes ‘Coal’ and ‘Calling Me Home’, centered on mining that dirty black rock, as red-blooded as shimmering as a ruby.
Tasty Tracks from ‘Coal’:
The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore
Dark As A Dungeon
Coming Of The Roads
Tasy Tracks from ‘Calling Me Home’:
The Maple’s Lament
Hello, My Name Is Coal