Kathy Mattea Mines Home and Heritage for New Album

Coal Lifts the Lid on a Historically Tragic Way of Life

Kathy Mattea’s Coal has the stark clarity and elegance of a black-and-white photograph. It is a concept album to be sure, but it involves more than just the exploration of a single theme. There is an overarching mood here as well — a grim, plodding, resigned awareness that those who mine coal are doomed when they work and damned when they can’t.

Given the serious tone of the album and Mattea’s unflinching, at-the-scene vocals, it will be a big surprise if Coal doesn’t find itself in the running for a folk music Grammy.

Indeed, those conversant with the folk music scene of the 1960s will recognize many of the tunes Mattea resurrects, among them Merle Travis’ cinematic “Dark as a Dungeon” (which dates back to 1947), Jean Ritchie’s doleful “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” and Billy Edd Wheeler’s loss-of-innocence classics “Coal Tattoo” and “Coming of the Roads.” The newest song is Darrell Scott’s brooding and ominous “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.”

Resolutely pro-miner, Coal touches on an array of bleak prospects — “black lung” disease, unemployment from mine closings, environmental devastation, mine safety (or the lack thereof), the clash of cultures and labor violence. Moreover, the album arrives just as the energy crisis is making coal an especially coveted commodity, the harvesting of which is certain to spark even more social and political reverberations.

Mattea is in familiar territory. Besides being from West Virginia, where the subject of coal is as omnipresent as music is in Nashville, she is the granddaughter of coal miners on both sides of the family, and her mother used to work for the local branch of the United Mine Workers of America.

Although she had long thought about recording coal mining songs, it never became a sense of mission until the 2006 mine explosion in Sago, W.Va., which killed 12 workers and reminded Mattea once again of coal’s haunted heritage.

By the time this disaster happened, Mattea already had her eye on several songs. “The short list just kind of emerged over years,” she tells CMT.com. “People sent me CDs [and gave] me lists of songs. I just turned over rocks, basically.”

When she finally decided it was time to record the album, a friend suggested she ask Marty Stuart to produce it.

“I met with him a couple of times to just sort of play him what I was thinking about doing,” Mattea recalls. “But I never sang through [the songs] to him until I had them all collected.

“It was kind of scary because he looked at me on the front end and said, ‘You’re going to have to get deep into this, pal, if you’re going to pull it off. You’re going to have to inhabit these songs.’ So fast forward like nine months and I’m playing through the songs, and he looked at me and said, ‘You did your homework.’ It was like the biggest gold star I could have gotten.”

Mattea also found musical support in her old friends, Tim and Mollie O’Brien, who backed her on the album’s only “bright” song, “Green Rolling Hills,” and fellow CMA female vocalist of the year winner Patty Loveless, who sang harmony on “Blue Diamond Mines.” (Mattea was the Country Music Association’s top female vocalist in 1989 and 1990, Loveless in 1996.)

“Marty really encouraged me to keep it simple and trust whatever happened — whether it was a perfect performance or not,” says Mattea, “He also said I ought to be in the room [with the musicians] as much as possible and not use headphones if I could keep from it. ‘Red-Winged Blackbird’ and ‘Coming of the Roads’ — neither one of those had headphones at all. That was scary.”

Even with all the pieces in place, Mattea says the album was slow going. “Last summer was so frustrating. We got the basic tracks done, but Marty was gone all summer and I was gone all fall. So the whole thing just had to kind of sit for a while.” It wasn’t until November, she reports, that she was able to mix, tweak and sequence the final cuts.

Before she recorded Coal, Mattea says the only song on it that she had ever performed in her shows was “Green Rolling Hills,” which is essentially a love song to West Virginia. Now she includes them all.

She was just 19 and fairly new to Nashville when she took a job as a guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame, then located beside the BMI building on 17th Avenue. It was there that she first heard “Dark as a Dungeon.”

“We had all these historic films that would play [continuously] in two small theaters,” she says. “One was all Jimmie Rodgers stuff, and the other was a collection of [performers]. … I had this Swiss cheese history of music, you know, that I just picked up everywhere I could. So I ‘discovered’ great ‘new’ bands there — like Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys. It was life changing.

“This one particular film clip had Gene Autry, Bob Wills, one other cowboy type I can’t remember and Merle Travis doing ‘Dark as a Dungeon’ on his old Bigsby guitar. I had had this guitar teacher when I was a kid who taught me Travis picking, but he didn’t tell me who Merle Travis was. So I had a light-bulb moment. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, a song about coal mining! That’s part of the lore in my family.’ It just went back on some hard drive in the back of my head.”

After Mattea posted a notice on her Web site that she was going to record an album about coal mining, she received an e-mail from memoirist, rocket scientist and fellow West Virginian, Homer Hickam, whose book, Rocket Boys, was turned into the movie October Sky.

Seeing an opportunity, Mattea’s manager urged her to ask Hickam to write liner notes for the album. “I said, ‘You ask him. I can’t do it,’” the singer admits. However it happened, Hickam did write the notes. “He’s just become my dear friend,” says Mattea. “For a while, we e-mailed almost every day.”

Following the examples set by other artists who no longer regularly stalk the charts, Mattea set up her own label for Coal and named it Captain Potato Records. Obviously, such a moniker requires an explanation — and she has one: “If you say my name over and over again and you speed up — and somewhere in there you have a beer or two — it will turn into ‘Captain Potato.’ There’s a drinking game for you.”

While it has never been the dominant motif in her work, Mattea has consistently manifested a vigorous social consciousness, whether she was celebrating the depth and dignity of a blue-collar worker in “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” dwelling on the lot of old people in the Grammy-winning “Where’ve You Been” or speaking out for AIDS victims, as she did famously during the 1992 CMA Awards show, well before other country stars approached the cause.

“I’m a reluctant activist,” Mattea confesses. “I just want everyone to like me, and I just want to go on about my business.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.