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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Coal Country Crooner

Air Date: Week of

Kathy Mattea (Photo: Kristen Barlowe)

Host Steve Curwood speaks with singer-songwriter, Kathy Mattea, about her soon to-be-released album "Coal.” Mattea plays some songs and talks about growing up in West Virginia coal country, her relationship with the 'black gold', and how mining and burning coal is affecting the environment and the people in her native state.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Coal runs thick in the blood of many, if not most, West Virginians. Kathy Mattea is one of them. She grew up in West Virginia coal country before heading off to Nashville and a long and successful career as a country singer. Her recordings have been number one on the billboard country music charts time after time. And it’s hard to turn on a country radio station without hearing such hits as “Love at the Five and Dime” and “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses.”

[MUSIC Kathy Mattea “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” from ‘Untasted Honey’ (UMG Recordings - 1987)]

Now in her most recent work, country music star Kathy Mattea is turning her attention back to her roots- acoustic music and coal country. Her latest recording project explores the heritage of her home state … and of her own family in coal mining. Kathy Mattea and her guitar join us now from Nashville.

Welcome to Living on Earth

MATTEA: How you doing?

CURWOOD: Now, you’ve recorded a number of songs that explored the heritage of coal mining. What was your family’s relation to coal mining, your dad’s relationship?

MATTEA: Well, both my grandfathers were coal miners. My dad was the only son. There were six kids in his family and he was the only boy. And uh because my uncle gave him the money to go to school, go to college, he didn’t have to go into the mines. But that was sort of everybody’s, you know, everybody in his town that was sort of what you did. And ah, my mom grew up in a family with six sisters and my grandfather on her side was a coal miner as well. And you know just lots of family stories, lots of family lore and uncles who were in the mines.

CURWOOD: Now in addition to the effects of mining coal and living with coal itself I understand that you’ve also been thinking a lot about the effects of burning coal, specifically its contribution to global warming. Can you tell me about that?

MATTEA: Yeah, it’s been an interesting journey this last year. In January of 2006 I went to see former Vice President Gore give his power point presentation over at Vanderbilt University and ah I didn’t sleep for two nights after that. I mean, I was just haunted by what I had seen and the evidence just seemed so compelling and so overwhelming and I learned to give the slideshow and have been giving it in various settings over the last few months. And ah, it’s interesting, I began to sleep again once I really started taking action. That was the thing I learned along the way was that I feel helpless until I begin to be a part of the solution. And we are each a very important part of this solution.

CURWOOD: Half of the electricity in this country does come from coal, thereabouts, so maybe there’s a 50-50 chance it came from coal, but since you’re in Nashville and I’m in Somerville, Massachusetts probably one of these studios was fired by coal.

MATTEA: Yeah, it’s something that people don’t think about. And here’s the other part of it: the big seams of coal in West Virginia and Kentucky have all been mined. So what’s left are real thin seams and that means strip mining. Strip mining is rampant right now and it’s raping, it’s raping the countryside. What if you knew that every time you flip on your light switch a mountaintop in West Virginia just blows up? It’s crazy. In these rural areas a lot of times that is the best way to make money if you are unskilled labor, if you don’t have a college degree. And so you know, you don’t have a lot of power if you want to stay on the piece of land where your family has been for generations. There’s just a lot to it.

Kathy Mattea live (Courtesy of Mattea.com)

CURWOOD: So, when you decided to do something about coal what was the first song that you decided to perform?

MATTEA: I think the first one was Coal Tattoo, which is a Bill Ed Wheeler song. It’s been around for a long time.

[MUSIC: Kathy Mattea “Coal Tattoo” from ‘Coal’ (Label TBA - 2007)]

MATTEA: Dark as a Dungeon was on the list. And then I just started researching and found some old songs from the sixties and the fifties and found some modern songs and just tried to kind of find a nice mix. My goal was to be able to tell this story and to maybe open up a window into it that people who have not heard these songs before, hopefully they might find some accessibility there.

CURWOOD: What about the story of Lawrence Jones?

MATTEA: Ah. Well, there was a strike in the early seventies in Harlan County and it was horrible. It wound up going on for 13 months. And these people were fired on with machine guns. They were called out of their houses and killed. The whole thing kind of came to a head when one of the, they call them “gun thugs,” one of the people hired by the company to intimidate the strikers, shot a young miner in the face with a shot gun. And he went into the hospital and eventually died after a few days. He had a 16-year-old wife and a new-born baby at the time. And it was sort of the last straw. The miners had been fighting a long time and that was the last straw that got the contract agreed to between the UNW and the company. And this tribute to him which was written by Sy Con is just the most beautiful and reverent and empowering song about people without a lot of options. Just refusing to back down in the face of what they know to be right.

CURWOOD: Would you play it for us now?

MATTEA: I’d be happy to.

CURWOOD: Thank you.

[MUSIC: Kathy Mattea “Lawrence Jones” from ‘Spotland Productions Live In-Studio Performance’ (Nashville, TN – April 2007)]

CURWOOD: Thank you so much. Now you’ve chosen for your coal project a number of songs that well, they just clearly admire people who mine coal who give their lives and their fortunes to mine coal and endure all the hardships that come along with it. But if the United States were to take concerted action on climate change wouldn’t that be kind of hard on the coal mining regions of the country like West Virginia?

MATTEA: Well, I think that’s part of what we have to talk about. We have to try to get into a solution so that we can make some kind of sensible solution to cleaner power. I think there are going to be many facets to the solution. There are people doing research right now on how to burn coal cleaner. So it may not be that we have to eliminate coal, but you know if our appetite for energy is so big right now, that we will blow up mountain tops to the point where we have strip mines in West Virginia as big as half the area of Manhattan. You know these things, it’s not just the beauty of the mountain that’s lost. The Appalachian forest is the most diverse forest in North America. So we’re losing habitat. We’re losing species. The sludge ponds are contaminating the water and then when they blast off the mountain tops and push all of that dirt that is not coal into the valleys it contaminates the water for the people who live in the area. People in West Virginia are screaming about this and people who mine the coal are screaming about this. It is a complex problem. But if we can’t discuss it because we are so married to the way things are, then we can’t find our way to a solution and we must.

Kathy Mattea (Photo: Kristen Barlowe)

CURWOOD: One of the best-kept secrets about West Virginia is its wild places: its rivers and backcountry. And the ecology there, which you point out is perhaps one of the most diverse forests we have in North America.


CURWOOD: You have a song about a bird that you’re lucky to see down there.

MATTEA: (laughs) Yeah, this a, God this is just a wonderful song and it so much speaks to the kind of risk that these miners take every day so we’ll have electricity. You know how much danger these guys work in everyday. And it’s just an eloquent piece written by Billy Ed Wheeler.

MUSIC: Kathy Mattea “Blackbird” from ‘Spotland Productions Live In-Studio Performance’ (Nashville, TN – April 2007)

CURWOOD: Phew…whoa, boy you dig deep into that tune.

MATTEA: Oh man, that tune is so amazing, just an amazing piece of writing.

CURWOOD: As you’ve reflected on doing this coal project on the one hand you see coal giving people jobs and fueling the country. On the other hand of course it’s taken quite a toll on people and your home state of West Virginia. So tell me, is coal a gift or a curse for West Virginia?

MATTEA: Yeah. I think it is and it’s reflected in so many of these songs as well. There is a love-hate relationship all the way across the board. Almost from any angle you slice it. And as I’ve made this project I have a piece of coal sitting on my desk. I just keep kind of looking at it. It’s bituminous coal, it’s all shinny. And ah you know, I thought that’s really good to be able to just reach out and touch it every once in a while. I know what it smells like when it burns. I know how hot it burns. I know what it’s like to go to the railroad track and gather it up. And I feel like this is part of my history and I have kind of a unique position you know: kind of one foot in the modern world and one foot in a kind of older history. And it’s very scary to bring that up in the face of global warming but we have to be able to talk about these things. We have to.

CURWOOD: Kathy Mattea’s next album is called “Coal.” Thank you so much for taking this time.

MATTEA: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

[MUSIC: Kathy Mattea “Acoustic Guitar Instrumental” from ‘Spotland Productions Live In-Studio Performance’ (Nashville, TN – April 2007)]



Kathy Mattea's Coal Project website

Kathy Mattea's official website


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