(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
You would think the general state of coal mining in this country and the situation of the miners themselves would call out for songwriters and singers to address this important social issue -- as has been done many times in the past.
In a TV interview, Ted Turner said he thinks that these coal mining and oil drilling disasters are a signal from God to stop destroying his grand creation. I think Turner may be on to something there.
Mountaintop destruction coal mining and deep sea oil drilling are disasters waiting to happen, and if there are no remedies in place, then what? Just big bonuses for the villains who perpetrated the whole mess. You can bet on that.
The only responses to the latest mine tragedy that I can see thus far coming from any corner of the music world are concerts organized by Alan Jackson and Emmylou Harris. And I salute them for that.
Jackson's Saturday (May 22) in Charleston, W.Va., will be a benefit for families of the miners killed in the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal in that state on April 5.
Harris, who has a long history of activism, headlined a Wednesday night (May 19) concert at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium to launch the Music Saves Mountains campaign. She was joined onstage by Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss, Patty Griffin, Kathy Mattea, Dave Matthews, Big Kenny, Buddy Miller, Sam Bush and others. Harris' message? Stop mountaintop removal coal mining.
But will we be hearing new songs about the Montcoal disaster and the situation with mine safety and all the environmental considerations? Don't hold your breath, although Dierks Bentley and Jon Randall co-wrote "Down in the Mine" for Bentley's upcoming Up On the Ridge bluegrass album (due June 5), before the tragedy in West Virginia. But in this bottom-line world, there is no commercial potential -- as artists such as Frank Zappa have been told by the record industry for decades -- for making money with controversial songs. Such songs are additionally dismissed for not being up-tempo, for having no positive message, for being negative.
There have been hundreds and hundreds of coal mining songs over the decades -- including the old "West Virginia Mine Disaster" -- and I can't think of a genuinely happy one. To be sure, Sara Evans recorded "Coal Mine," about the hunk she was hot for -- and she didn't mean a hunk of coal. And Lee Dorsey's hit recording of "Working in the Coal Mine" is really more about the imagined romance of the mine than about the reality involved. Landmark mining songs such as Merle Travis' "Dark as a Dungeon" and Kathy Mattea's entire Coal album are biting songs of commentary and social critique. Harlan County, scene of much violence, inspired such rousing songs as "Bloody Harlan." Brad Paisley, Patty Loveless and Mattea have recorded Darrell Scott's "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive," a tale of the miner's life in that Kentucky county. The great troubadour Woody Guthrie left a legacy of mining songs, such as "The Dying Miner" and "Ludlow Massacre."
Additionally, not everyone remembers that the famous song "Busted," which was a hit for Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, John Conlee and the group Nazareth, was originally written as a coal mining song. The song's writer, Harlan Howard, changed the coal mining references to cotton farming at Cash's request. The reason? Cash's family had been cotton pickers in Arkansas and cotton was what he identified with. Patty Loveless, a Kentucky native familiar with coal mining, recorded "Busted" with the original mining lyrics on her Mountain Soul II album in 2009.
Are you surprised to find that these songs are overwhelmingly pro-miner and anti-coal company? Maybe, as serious songwriters try to do, these songs just tried to reflect the reality of life. And to say that songwriters are more likely to be humanists, rather than capitalists.
But, let's get serious about the business of songs and the music business. Topical songs by and large have no marketplace value anymore and have virtually gone out of fashion. The last serious topical songs dealt with the war and with 9/11. The latter, especially, cried out for serious song attention.
Meaningful, lasting songs were created out of those crises, especially Alan Jackson's self-written "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" and Bruce Robison's "Travelin' Soldier," as recorded by the Dixie Chicks.
But where are the topical songs about politics these days? About the financial crisis of the last few years? The only financial song I can think of these days is Tyler Dickerson's "Save a Few Billion for Us." And that's a fairly funny song sung (and co-written) by the 16-year-old Dickerson, who sees a different reality facing his generation. And I don't hear any songs these days about the disastrous Gulf oil spill, although we are starting to get songs on the 2010 Nashville flood.
But, let's face it: Not many songwriters and singers are secure enough about themselves and where they are in their careers to attempt what are admittedly risky songs. The word "controversial" sends some folks into hiding. People such as Merle Haggard and Steve Earle are not afraid to make topical statements. How long will such people exist?