Kathy Mattea: “Coal”
Both of Kathy Mattea’s grandfathers were coal miners. She says as much in the liner notes of her new album, Coal, but you could’ve figured it out without her help. Though she didn’t pen a single track on this record– in fact, they’re all covers of traditional tunes by Mere Haggard, Hazel Dickens, and Jean Ritchie, some of which could even be termed standards– the album is played with such ferocious grit and warm empathy that it plays like an autobiography, an album borne out of unique personal experience– which, of course, it is. Equal parts a tribute to her family’s roots, a memorial to the twelve miners who died in the 2006 Sago Mine disaster, and a vivid document of a way of life most of us see as utterly foreign, Coal is a collection of songs about the perils of coal mining, and, as such, it’s an album played in the shadow of death, marked by desperation and sadness, played with all the seriousness of a collection of murder ballads– which, in a way, it is.
But while it’s basically a collection of eleven short tragedies, and though it portrays the coal mining life as nothing but harrowing and bleak, it isn’t a depressing or dispiriting album, partially because Mattea sings these songs with such compassion and empathy, it ends up as affirming rather than discouraging. But even more than that, it does what traditional music at its very best is supposed to do– it reminds us of our common humanity, establishing a sense of community and solidarity through the stories told in the songs. Mattea and producer Marty Stuart keep it a sparse, acoustic affair, with only guitar, upright bass, fiddle, banjo and mandolin as instrumentation, but even with these basic colors they paint in a remarkable variety of shades and styles, touching on country, folk, and acoustic blues, all performed with the kind of backporch authenticity that country radio tends to shun in favor of brighter, more polished sounds. And so, by keeping the music so closely rooted in tradition and by using the time-tested songs of generations past, Mattea reminds us that while she’s singing her own story, it’s not only her story– it’s the story of many. And that story, as told on Coal, is a story of death and despair, but also of survival, of hope and humanity. So while the songs and sounds are traditional, this music is wonderfully alive and full of drama, and, for its vision and its resilience, it’s unlike any other roots album in 2008– perhaps even unlike any other roots album ever.