Kathy Mattea to deliver some Coal

Kathy Mattea - CoalFor some Kathy Mattea is to West Virginia what Patty Loveless is to Kentucky, although the former hasn’t embraced bluegrass music as has the latter – until now, perhaps.

Raised near Charleston, West Virginia, Grammy-award winning singer Mattea is to release a CD, simply entitled Coal, on the newly formed label, Captain Potato Records, on April 1. From what I can glean, it is one that is sure to attract some bluegrass fans – it’s her first album minus drums, even.

Being from the coal-rich hills of West Virginia, Mattea is readily aware of the nature of the industry. She is still haunted by memories of the Farmington Mine disaster of 1968 near Fairmont, West Virginia, and both her grandfathers were miners while her mother worked for the United Mine Workers Association. Nevertheless, it’s a project that wasn’t taken lightly. In fact, Mattea said the Sago Mine Disaster (also West Virginia) and the death of 12 of its miners made her realize it was time to tackle the Coal project, which, she says, has been on her mind since she was 19, when she first heard Dark As A Dungeon.

“This record reached out and took me. It called to me to be made. When Sago happened, I got catapulted back to that moment in my life and thought, ‘I need to do something with this emotion, and maybe this album is the place to channel it’. I knew the time was right.”

The album features traditional and contemporary songs, many of them by songwriters with Appalachian roots; Jean Ritchie, Billy Edd Wheeler, Hazel Dickens, Utah Phillips, Merle Travis, Si Kahn and Darrell Scott. Some of the highlights are Black Lung, The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore, Coal Tattoo, Green Rolling Hills [with Tim and Mollie O’Brien providing harmony vocals], Blue Diamond Mines [with Marty Stuart and Patty Loveless – background vocals], The Coming Of The Roads, Red-winged Blackbird and Lawrence Jones. As Mattea says, the songs were chosen because they articulate “the lifestyle, the bigger struggles,” and “speak to the sense of place and sense of attachment people have to each other and to the land.”

The backing musician includes names that are no strangers to bluegrass aficionados, beginning with Mattea’s hand-picked producer [who also plays guitar and mandolin], Marty Stuart, who plays guitar, mandolin and mandola on the tracks and joins Patty Loveless for background vocals on one song also. Bryon House (bass) and Stuart Duncan (fiddle, mandolin and banjo) are household names in the bluegrass world. Lesser known are Bill Cooley, who has been with Mattea for 20 years, handles the guitar duties, while John Catchings (cello), Randy Leago (keyboards and accordion) and guest steel player Fred Newell round out the album’s sound.

Kathy Mattea’s web site features an interview from her recent appearance on NPR’s Living On Earth that features some of the music from Mattea’s forth-coming album Coal as well as some personal insight into growing up, living in a coal mining community and the environmental effects of the coal industry.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.