Kaid Benfield Archive


Coal miner's granddaughter

Kaid Benfield

Posted February 24, 2008 at 10:14PM

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While perusing the latest issue of the excellent and soon-to-be-lamented music magazine No Depression, I came across an eloquent review of Kathy Mattea’s forthcoming album, Coal.

Kathy MatteaMattea, of course, is the husky-voiced and melodic folk-country artist who has won numerous Grammys and whose wonderful 1986 album Walk the Way the Wind Blows has been played, oh, 40 times or so in my abode.  Wonderful, wonderful collection of songs penned by the likes of Nanci Griffith and Rodney Crowell, and about as good as it gets for the genre.

Coal, the new collection, is all about the culture of coal the mineral, and mining, in Mattea’s home state of West Virginia.  My colleague Rob Perks was all over the environmental and social issues of mining country in his blog entry last week, so I won’t try to repeat any of that here.  But, for a different sort of introduction to those issues, go to Mattea’s website, where you can listen to a thoughtful interview (with in-studio music! click on "Coal" at the top of the site) that was first aired on Public Radio International, and just listen.  Mattea’s roots in that culture (two grandfathers who worked in the mines, a mom who worked for the union) are deep indeed.

As a onetime musician myself, I am tempted to go off on so many tangents here that we might never get back to the subject at hand.  But I will say that the album – which apparently won’t be released until April – will contain some of the best songs of some terrific songwriters, including DC’s Hazel Dickens, whom I used to see all the time on the #36 bus to Georgetown when I lived on that route; Billy Edd Wheeler, whose songs were some of the first I ever taught myself as a teenager and who lives in my native Buncombe County, North Carolina; and the immortal Merle Travis.  There are samples on Mattea’s website where, of course, you can pre-order the album.

Kathy Mattea's new album, CoalI wish I could link Grant Alden's review of the collection in No Depression, but it isn’t online.  It is almost poetic in places:  If you live in or drive through the Appalachian coal country of West Virginia or Kentucky, a fine gray grit will cover your car.  It will shade your house . . . [Mattea] is someone with whom you might have a long conversation, no matter who you are, and both of you would learn something.

I’m generally not a fan of political music, since it tends to be un-nuanced and not as good as I wish at being, well, either political or musical.  But I have so many connections to this album that I can’t ignore it. 

So check out the music online, and if you’re a music fan pick up a copy of No Depression on the news stand.  (The March-April issue also contains features on two of Canada's finest, producer extraordinaire Daniel Lanois and singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards.)  You won’t be able to buy the magazine much longer, unfortunately.  The issue after this one will be the last in print, although they vow to keep the website going.

I know, this post didn't have much to do with smart growth, did it?  What, you thought I was a single-issue kind of guy?  And, anyway, figuring out ways to cultivate and maintain a healthy economy and community (and, by the way, generating electricity) while developing and conserving the landscape is a huge part of sustainability.  Coal puts all of those in bold relief.  Back on topic in a more mainstream way next time.