"Having this show at the Ryman has special meaning," Emmylou Harris said as she summed up the feelings behind the Music Saves Mountains benefit concert held Wednesday night (May 19) at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. "If the Ryman is the mother church of country music, then the Appalachian Mountains are its sacred ground. We need your voices, because once they're gone, these mountains will never be back."
Harris, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss, Patty Griffin, Big Kenny, Dave Matthews and others all gathered to shine a light on a coal mining practice that is devastating communities and forests in the Appalachian region, the area that first gave rise to the traditions of country music.
Mountaintop removal coal mining is essentially strip mining on a massive scale that does exactly what its name implies. The peaks of mountains are blasted away to expose the coal below, and the waste is dumped into adjoining river valleys. Filling in these rivers has major effects downstream, polluting water supplies and endangering local residents, as well as wreaking havoc on the extremely diverse Appalachian ecosystem. To date, some 500 peaks have been leveled.
Needless to say, the performers at the Ryman felt very close to this cause. Most indentified themselves as "hillbillies" who grew up in the affected area.
Mattea, a West Virginia native, took the stage early and graced the sold-out crowd with her rich and expressive voice on "Red Winged Blackbird." She hardly needed a microphone at all. After bringing Harris back out and introducing Loveless, the three harmonized with conviction on Jean Ritchie's "Black Waters." When she reached the climatic verse, "But if I had 10 million thereabouts/I would buy Perry County and I'd run 'em all out!," the crowd let her know they were firmly behind her with a massive cheer.
It should be noted that during a press conference earlier in the day, Mattea made a point to stress that this movement is not anti-coal -- and certainly not anti-miner. She stressed that the needs of all should be considered, but it's time to have a very difficult conversation -- civilly.
Echoing that statement, Loveless, raised in Kentucky, explained her position from the stage. "I am a coal miner's daughter, and I know how hard they work," she said. "My father died of black lung disease. I feel his spirit here tonight, and I know he would agree that we need to make a living and energy, but don't take our mountains. We need to find another way, and we will."
In what was perhaps the most moving musical moment of the night, she dedicated "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" to the 29 miners who lost their lives just over a month ago in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia. With triple fiddles and a stunning a cappella intro to the song, Loveless sent daggers to the heart of each and every audience member.
Big Kenny, who first became aware of mountaintop removal after flying over a site on his way home to Culpeper, Va., lightened the mood a bit with his circus-showman personality, but the issue clearly affected him deeply. Offering his dual message of the need for safe food and clean water along with the transformative power of forgiveness, he said, "We don't want to think twice about what we're handing down to the next generation." His song, "Wake Up," included the lines "May the day never come/We should worry 'bout the things we could've done." Earlier in the day, he described visiting a family whose water ran black out of the tap as "utterly disheartening."
It was a bit ironic that Nashville would be hosting a benefit for anything other than flood relief so soon after the rivers crested in Middle Tennessee, but this event had been in the works for quite some time. Almost every performer addressed the issue is some way or another. During a break in the show, Gibson Guitars president Dave Berryman announced the company's support of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the organization behind Music Saves Mountains. He also said Music Rising, a charity set up in part by Gibson in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, will donate $250,000 to MusiCares to repair or replace musical instruments lost in the Tennessee flood.
The second half of the show featured more stellar music, but was maybe less of a call to action and more of a thank you to those who paid handily for their tickets. Buddy Miller, who all evening had been leading the all-star band with Sam Bush, used his turn out front to perform Steve Earle's "The Mountain" and then gave the spotlight to Griffin. Singing "Move Up," a song from her latest album, Downtown Church, she had the crowd clapping in time. Another song, "Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)" from her Children Running Through album, found couples young and old cuddling up together in the Ryman's oak church pews.
At this point, it seemed like the audience had gotten as loud as it could. Then Griffin introduced Alison Krauss and the place simply erupted. The notoriously sheepish singer walked across the stage and let her music do the talking for her. Angelic is probably the best word to describe it. She offered "Jacob's Dream," a song about two boys lost in the woods, and "I Know Who Holds Tomorrow," with the audience alternating between dead silence during the song and deafening applause afterwards.
Now there was only one performer left, and all Emmylou Harris had to do was mention that the show sold out in 15 minutes for everybody to know that Dave Matthews was coming out. I felt a little naive for thinking the crowd couldn't get any louder than it did during the previous segment. Amid "Don't Drink the Water," a bit of "This Land Is Your Land," "You and Me," the Pete Seeger version of "Rye Whiskey" and "So Damn Lucky," Matthews declared, "I love this part of the world. It's a shame to let money ruin it ... so let's not."
The show closed with an amazing quartet rendition of John Prine's "Paradise," which pretty much outlines the entire argument against mountaintop removal mining. Harris, Krauss, Mattea and Loveless, a dream team of vocalists if there ever was one, made the song's chorus hit home harder than ever before. "And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County/Down by the Green River where paradise lay/Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking/Mr. Peabody's coal train has hauled it away."
All of the proceeds of the event were donated to the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, but the real cause behind the benefit was to create awareness of the problem.
"Like a lot of people, it was something that I wasn't aware of," said Harris, who has a long history of political activism. "The Appalachians have inspired countless country, folk, bluegrass, gospel and Americana songs. Now those sources of inspiration are being secretly destroyed. We're standing together with one voice to send the message that we will not sit idly by while our mountains are being blown apart."
If you'd like to learn more, visit the Music Saves Mountains website.