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Album Review: “Coal” by Kathy Mettea

December 19, 2008

Kathy Mattea - Coal5 Stars

 

Before I close out 2008 I figured I would give my take on a concept album that has become quite popular among both critics and fans alike from from one of country music’s most respected female artists, Kathy Mattea. Having grown up in West Virginia, Kathy’s family underwent the struggles of living the middle class life of the coal minors. Combining that with her own personal purposes she released a folk/country project this year appropriately titled Coal.

For her new project Kathy takes her preferred folk/country sound and applies it to the concept of the coal mines. In the process she manages to tackle her own personal beliefs from the environment to her appreciation for her roots without overshadowing the major point of the project. What’s even more impressive is that the entire album runs very smooth and doesn’t act as so much as way of defying the coal industry and other controversial topics, but it acts as a project meant to make the listener think and consider the struggles of a coal minors life including concepts such as death, poverty and family. Although the album takes blatant stabs at the industry and its working conditions, it does so in a way that is undeniably factual and sparks more realization than argumentation.

Inspired by her life in West Virginia and the recent issues involving the coal industry in the past few years, Kathy created an 11 track project surrounding many levels of the coal industry, making sure to scratch the surface of everything she could. The project opens with a track called “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” and never looks back. This opening song follows the narration of a minor who compares and contrasts the coal mining world today to a time when his father was a little more beneficial from the same business. However, things do not remain as simple as that. As the project moves along things become more complicated and extreme and begin to branch out into different issues involved in the struggles of the coal mines.

Kathy includes some of her own personal beliefs and moral into the album for a little flavor, but does so with the best of intentions by mixing them with the album’s central idea for maximum results. Take “Coming Of The Roads” for example. The song follows a widow who recalls a more peaceful time of serenity and personal luxury in the forest before it was all destroyed when the roads came and the mines were opened, mines that eventually took her husband from her. Then you have “Green Rolling Hills” which is more personal for Mattea as it describes growing up in West Virginia and how her characters father implores her to move to a more successful life elsewhere. Even when she does she still finds herself coming back to those green hills in her memory seeing it as her heaven despite how horrible it was living under the control of the coal mining enterprise.

Much of the albums remaining material centers around more powerful topics and stories concerning coal minors. “Coal Tattoo” and “Red-Winged Black Bird” focus on the scars that working in the mines can leave behind for the men who have no other option but to work there and even go so far as to mention to high risk of death and the carelessness of the employers when it tends to happen. Then you have “Blue Diamond Mines” and “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”, two songs that surround the struggles to leave the mines and find better lives. However the men in both songs end up right back there, the character in the later eventually losing his life. To top this all off Kathy narrates “Dark As A Dungeon”, a slow and smooth ballad meant to stray young men from turning to the mines for work if there is absolutely any other option possible.

The entire album comes to an end with a powerful a capella performance of Hazel Dickens’ “Black Lung”. Kathy’s rendition of the song is both haunting and inspiring as she explains the slow deterioration of a man’s life, both figuratively and literally, due to his dependence on the mines. He saw his job as a decent way to make a living, and even came to enjoy it, but it all turned on him when his lungs were so blackened by his work he began to slowly lose his health which lost him his job, and eventually his life. What’s important about this song is that it also shows a willingness to do the job, despite the known backlashes of the trade. Mattea shows respect for the fact that despite it’s dangers coal mining is not just a job, but a lifestyle for some men.

Concept albums are risky business in any genre. It’s hard for an artist to center and entire project around one subject without straying or overdoing it even just a little. However Kathy has enough experience and respect for the subject matter that she manages to pull this off like the professional she is. She took a concept close to her heart and turned to music to tell the world about it. There was no guarantee that anyone would ever want to hear it and there was the looming possibility and probability that she would create a controversy that would destroy her. However, instead of all this she has earned even more respect as a writer, a singer, a storyteller, and as an activist. In 11 songs she manages to criticize coal mining, celebrate it as a lifestyle, and even speak her mind about a few other subject while staying on pace. To some it up in one word: “Flawless”.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. SamB permalink
    December 19, 2008 5:46 pm

    Okay, ignoring the spam…

    Coal is an absolutely amazing album. I’m going to see Kathy in January and cannot wait!

  2. December 19, 2008 7:30 pm

    I wasn’t really into this album when I first heard it, but subsequent listens have really won me over. At first I felt underwhelmed by its slow pace, but now I think it’s part of the beauty of this masterpiece. Mattea didn’t concede to the temptation to make this a catchy album, but rather a meaningful one.

  3. December 19, 2008 7:38 pm

    It’s funny Leeann because less than a year ago I would have heard this album and passed it over as a boring and underproduced piece of crap. Now that I’ve been more into the art behind the entertainment for a while I have begun to understand how an album like this can be so popular without being upbeat all the time.

  4. Chris D. permalink
    December 20, 2008 8:48 pm

    I love this album so much, it was the best introduction for me to Kathy. I had never heard of her before I bought this album!

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