West Virginia-born, Kathy Mattea may have made her name and money as an out and out mainstream country act but the twice-voted CMA Female Vocalist of the Year and 1980s and 1990s hit maker hasn’t forsaken her rural, coal mining roots.
A close friend of fellow West Virginians Tim and Mollie O’Brien Mattea has them plus Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Dugas and Oliver Wood lend vocal harmonies to the record. As for players she calls on percussionist Jim Brock, John Randall Stewart (electric guitar), Byron House (bass), Bryan Sutton (banjo, mandolin, banjo, guitars), Stuart Duncan (fiddle, banjo, mandolin, bowed zither) and longtime band member Bill Cooley (who brings the entertainment to a conclusion via an instrumental he wrote; ‘Requiem For A Mountain’).
For her material on this, her second doff of her cap to her heritage following on from her last album, Coal Mattea has chosen two each from the hugely influential, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard and likewise two from fiddler Laurie Lewis plus there is no less than three from folkie Jean Ritchie. Dickens’ ‘West Virginia, My Home’ and Si Khan’s ‘Gone, Gonna Rise Again’ are particularly strong, how nice it is to hear Mattea perform without the ‘Nashville’ feel of her albums of the 1990s. Lewis’ sombre tale telling of the demise of natural habitat on ‘The Wood Thrush’s Song’ and ‘Maple’s Lament’ (complete with beautiful intro; as fiddle and acoustic guitar speak volumes) like with Richie’s chilling tale ‘West Virginia Mine Disaster’. Steeped in fiddle and evocative Dobro (Randy Kohrs), percussion it strikes home
Kathy speaks of how ‘my name is coal and coal is the king / some men call me black gold and you might have heard of me and though my name is coal around here I am queen’ on the fiddle, mandolin and harmony vocals driven and a mite funky ‘Hello My Name Is Coal’ (Larry Cordle, Jenee Fleenor). Gerrard’s song ‘Calling Me Home’ is a wonderful a cappella piece performed with Tim Erikson that underlines the bleak feel of the mines, and conditions people endured so they could put food on the table. Although on occasions Mattea’s voice is too good and a mite cultivated to bring out the best of the lyrics she does pull it off here as memorably as most anyone could. For Hazel Dickens she is not! The late torch bearer’s ‘Black Waters’ embraced in mandolin, fiddle and bass has Kathy speak of how mining has poisoned the land and the scenes of destruction caused by people with little or no regard to those on lower ground. As once fertile farming land and otherwise is destroyed through their greed, and a lack of legislation and man’s ignorance or should that be arrogance. When it came to the welfare of others and the land from which the coal came in the first place!
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