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Kathy Mattea on coal and frog gigging

By Staff | Nov 23, 2009

Through all the awards, Grammy-nominations and wins, albums, chart topping hits and more, Kathy Mattea always comes back home to West Virginia.

Born in 1959 in South Charleston, Mattea went to high school and college in her home state before leaving West Virginia University early for a recording career in Nashville. Since then she’s recorded 17 albums and charted more than 30 singles on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks charts. This includes such hits as “Goin’ Gone,” “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” and “Burnin’ Old Memories.”

But as high as those hits took Mattea, it was last year’s “COAL” album that really changed her life, setting her on a road of social activism and returning her to her West Virginian roots.

The songs on “COAL” are more than just mining songs; they’re songs about “my place and my people.” The tunes combine folk, country, bluegrass and gospel in a soaring, searing, textured mix of heartache and joy, light and dark. It’s sacred and human. It’s power and vulnerability. It’s West Virginia.

Graffiti: Tell us about how the COAL album came about.

Mattea: It was after the Sago mine disaster in 2006 and I was surprised by how emotional I was during that time.

Shortly after that there were public funerals for the miners and we were asked by Larry King Live if we would contribute a song to close their show with that night. They were going to cover the funerals and I think they wanted a song to end the show gracefully.

So this was very short notice, like 24 hours notice, and a bunch of came down to a studio in Nashville and beamed up a satellite feed. So we spent all day working on this song in order to gift this, to be able to do some music to help in this situation, and we all spent a lot of time talking about how good it felt to be able to contribute in some way and how music is such a great gift at those times. I thought that’s what I need to do with all this emotion; I need to make a record.

That’s how the coal record really got started.

Graffiti: I’ve gathered from fans and critics that COAL is one of the best received of your albums since your early releases. And yet this is a return to roots of sorts for you in that you grew up in West Virginia and this album is very much a reflection of that. Does that make this attention a little more special?

Mattea: Yes, I mean I really thought I was doing this record for me, that a few people might find it and appreciate it and I would sort of move on to the next thing. But it was a life-changing experience on many levels.

I’ve gone through music I had long since forgotten; I’ve discovered the roots to a lot of music I’ve been doing for a long time. In order to step into this I had to think differently about my music and what my purpose was, and I had to just get out of the way and let the song do the work.

I uncovered a lot of family stories; my own history. I mean it has been profound; really a life changing experience.

Graffiti: You come from a family of coalminers. Are there any of those family stories you’d care to share with us?

Mattea: Both my grandfathers were coalminers, so my parents both grew up in little coal towns. My grandparents still lived in the same houses till they died and a lot of cousins and stuff still live close by. My grandfather on my mom’s side had died before I was born. My dad’s dad was retired. So I didn’t know them when they were working.

My dad had got out of the mines. He worked in the chemical plants. So I sort of thought of this as my parents’ story, part of my family’s story. What I found was coal was everywhere in my life; it was so close I didn’t see it.

For instance, my brother for his entire career has been a dispatcher for the barges that take coal up and down the river for the electrical plants. It wasn’t until the record was finished and we were going back home to take some pictures, and we were driving toward my mom’s hometown and this friend of mine who was with me said, ‘My God, Kathy, the shadow of coal was on you the whole time.’ And I was like are you talking about? And he pointed out the John Amos plant, which was five miles from my parents. I mean you could see it from everywhere. It’s the biggest coal-fired electrical plant east of the Mississippi, but I didn’t think of its connection to coal, even though my brother brought coal to this plant. I thought of my brother as a river person. And I thought of the John Amos as, ‘Oh, that’s good, there’s jobs there. It’s the electricity plant.’ I had never connected the dots because we didn’t spend a lot of time talking about.

For instance, there’s a lot of controversy about fly ash and this big fly ash spill in east Tennessee last December. Well I have a cousin who lives on a farm and during several years of my childhood trucks came from the John Amos plant and dumped fly ash on their land to try build it up, to make it flat.

Now it has soil on it and grass growing and I was just talking to my brother who was down helping my cousin do some work and he said, ‘Yea, Kathy, it’s interesting. We had a bulldozer down there and the texture of the land is almost liquid still, and this was done during the ‘60s. I mean it’s incredible how much of this influence all these stages of coal had on me all through my childhood and I didn’t think about it.

Graffiti: You grew up in a family of coal miners, and yet have been a critic of the practice and its toll on the environment. What do you think the solution is to moving past these harmful practices and still care for the environment?

Mattea: I don’t think of myself as a critic of coal. I don’t see myself that way. I see myself as sort of pro-environment and pro-people, not so much anti-coal.

It’s interesting coming into this conversation having appreciated what a rich and diverse history it is and how deep the story goes, no pun intended.

I do think there’s a larger conversation to be had about coal. I think if our country and world moves toward a green economy we have to be able to have a civil conversation in order for West Virginia to not be completely left behind in the process because we have put all our eggs in one basket. So how do you talk about diversifying an economy and transitioning in a way that makes sense so that nobody is dropped so everybody can be taken care of in the process?

It’s difficult because people get scared and emotions run high. But I’m more interested in how we have that conversation, in how civil discourse happens with tough subject matter. I’m interested in trying to have it without clobbering each other.

Graffiti: Do you have any thoughts on the role conscientious West Virginians should take in this matter?

Mattea: I can really only speak from my own experience but here’s what I’ve tried to do just in my own heart before I ever start having a conversation with anyone else about this. I have to think about the coal operator, a person who runs a coal company, and I have to be very careful with what I hold in my mind because violence begins in the mind. If I look at this person and think they’re a bad person, a greedy person, that they’re an evil person, then I’m helping to perpetuate this thing I don’t want to see.

I have to say how would I feel if I was in his shoes. What if this was my whole family’s history, as it is with mine, or all I had ever known? What is my job? I’m providing a service for people, I’m providing jobs, I’m being a good member of the community.

He doesn’t see himself as a bad person and doesn’t appreciate being painted as a villain. I can’t begin having a conversation with him till I go out of my comfort zone to try to understand what it would be like to walk in his shoes.

I can’t expect him to understand my anguish about the environment and about some of the people and the conditions they have to live in next to these mountain top removal sites. I can’t expect him to listen to me, to have compassion for me if I’m not willing to have compassion for him. That’s the place I’m trying to work from.

I have concern for all West Virginia, everybody. I want to find a way that everybody can exist and have jobs and nobody has to be sacrificed for anyone else. That’s the conversation I’m interested in having.

Graffiti: One of the themes we’re examining in this issue is the way West Virginians look after their own interests in often progressive ways, and how this goes counter to a lot of the stereotypes about the state and its citizens. What are some ways you’ve seen this in action while growing up outside Charleston?

Mattea: I’ll tell you what I see that is what I’m passionate about. What I’ve seen in the people there, in myself, and in my own family, and that’s a real connection to a sense of place. I left a long time ago but I don’t think of myself as a Tennessean, I think of myself as a West Virginian who lives in Tennessee.

And Hazel Dickens, I know thinks of herself the same way. She left West Virginia and moved to Baltimore when she was 17, but you know she doesn’t feel like she’s from Maryland at all.

When I bought my first house my dad walked in the back yard and he pointed out every tree and he told me the name of every tree and which ones looked sickly, which ones looked good. He knew a place and he knew the trees, he knew the animals, he knew the bugs and he knew the fish — and he taught me that.

We’d go walking up in the mountains in the woods and we’d run trout lines and minnow traps and catch crawdads and frog gigging on the banks of the river and all that stuff. It attached me to it; it’s like you know a place, it’s not just arbitrary. That’s to me is the beauty of what I see over and over again in people.

When you grow up there, there is a sense of place that’s been lost by much of the rest of the country. So your passion about it runs deep and is really a part of you. Not just because you want to make a living but also because you’re attached to a way of life, you’re attached to a family tradition, you’re attached to not just your own family, but your ancestors going back. That to me is the beauty of the place.

There’s a wisdom to that that you can’t teach people. I think that’s the part I appreciate more going forward watching the world change. I’m really glad I had that as a kid. I got to go all over the state and climb mountains and spelunk in caves. I got to do the whole thing.

I just really feel like it’s a part of me.

Contact Justin at jmcintosh@graffitiwv.com