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Kathy Mattea rose to country-music fame with such radio staples as "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses" and "Love at the Five and Dime," but her artistic path has brought her to a different place: to the Appalachian folk music of her native West Virginia.
Mattea's grandfathers were both coal miners, and her most recent albums - "Coal" and "Calling Me Home" - took their inspiration from coal-mining history and mountain music.
"Coal" was nominated for a Grammy for best traditional folk album, and not only is its music hauntingly gorgeous, but it sparked Mattea to delve more into the subject and to lecture on environmental and sustainability issues.
She'll give such a talk on Thursday - see accompanying story for details - before her Friday concert at Connecticut College. That concert will feature "Coal" and "Calling Me Home" numbers along with a fair representation of Mattea's hits, such as the Grammy-winning "Where've You Been."
Here are excerpts from a recent phone interview with Mattea:
The Sago Mine Disaster in West Virginia - where an explosion trapped 13 miners for two days, with only one person surviving - had a huge impact on West Virginia native Mattea:
"When Sago happened, I just found myself riveted to the story in a way that surprised me. So I'd be rolling down a highway in my car in the middle of the day, and I'd just burst into tears from the tension of it all. I'm, like 'What is going on?' My parents grew up in coal towns, and both my grandfathers were coal miners, but my dad got out of the mines, so I didn't really think of this as a story I would take so personally."
Mattea was asked to sing for the Larry King show's coverage of the public funeral for the Sago miners, as a segue back into regular news. She called musicians friends to join her, and they rehearsed for a day first:
"We spent the day talking about this event and how it had impacted all of us, what we all went through. Everybody, to a person, said, 'I am happy to be able to contribute in music to these people in some way.' We talked a lot about how healing music is.
"I had an idea for years - something had been floating around in my head about a record about Appalachia or growing up in the mountains or being from West Virginia, but I couldn't nail it down. At that moment, I thought, 'Maybe that's what I'll do with all this grief, all this emotion. I'll make a record about coal mining."
When searching for songs for her "Coal" album, Mattea did a lot of research - talking to people, surfing the Internet, looking at the Library of Congress, ordering old reprints of records. Songs like "Coal Tattoo" and "Dark as a Dungeon," though, were in her consciousness long before that:
"I had always thought about 'Dark as a Dungeon.' I used to work at the Country Music Hall of Fame when I was young. My first job in Nashville, when I was 19, was giving tours there. There was an old film of Merle Travis singing 'Dark as a Dungeon.' I would go watch it on my lunch hour and think, 'Oh, man, that's my grandpa. That's what he did.'"
What led her from "Coal" to "Calling Me Home":
"I really wanted to sing about a lot of different aspects of the lore about coal. That ('Coal') record led to a follow-up record that was just about the larger lifestyle about Appalachian culture. As I've gotten deeper into this, I began to realize that people who grew up like my mom and dad - and even me - have a sense of being attached to a sense of place in a way that a lot of other people don't. ... My mom and dad knew every inch of the mountains around where they grew up. They knew where to go and dig up dandelions. They knew where all the wildlife was ... When I bought my first house, my dad walked me around the backyard and named me every tree in my backyard. It took me many, many years to realize this is a characteristic of growing up on a mountain that was like a member of your family."
About her coal-miner maternal grandfather:
"He would walk to work every day up the holler. I remember stories (from) my mom and all her sisters: It would be dark when (the workers) got out of mines. They'd come walking down to the holler, and they'd leave the lamps on their helmets on. She said, 'We'd wait for Dad to come home, and we could see the lights bouncing down off the mountain and them coming out the holler and walking up the railroad tracks to the house.' ... That picture was always so beautiful to me."
That grandfather put an addition onto his house in a rather unusual way:
"He was very proud he owned his own house. He didn't live in a company house. At a certain point, when the mine was winding down, they sold all the company houses that were on the other end of town. My grandfather bought one for $25. After he got out of the mine in the daytime, in the summer, he'd walk up there with a crowbar, and he took it apart board by board. He brought the nails back and gave it to my mom and all her sisters, and they'd pound them out on the cement steps of their house. He put an addition onto the house with it."
Mattea went into a mine herself when she was making her "Coal" album:
"A friend called and said, 'Do you want to go check it out?' This was what they call high coal; the seam of coal was 6 feet high. You could stand up in this mine. My grandpa on my dad's side mined low coal, which was like a 30-inch seam. He had to wedge himself in. And this was before automation. He'd use a pick and pull it out. It was incredibly backbreaking work. My dad told me about my grandma sewing leather strips onto the upper part of the back of his shirt so that when he wedged himself in, it wouldn't wear through his shirt. ...
"We went down 1,000 feet and then we rode two miles to the seam. After spending the day down there, I thought, 'I can see how this would get in your blood.' Because it's the same every day. You're a team with the guys you're working with. You can see the results of your work. It's incredibly satisfying. You can see exactly what you're accomplishing. You know it does good for people. There's something about the sort of simplicity and focus of that."
Talking the talk
In addition to her concert, Kathy Mattea will give a free public talk on environmental advocacy, titled "My Coal Journey," at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 30, in Evans Hall at Connecticut College.
She has been doing this kind of program for years, and it grew out of her seeing Al Gore give his "Inconvenient Truth" slide show in 2006. When she heard they were going to train people to do "Inconvenient Truth"-style lectures, she opted in.
"Over time, I got into the coal issues. I started to see how music was very powerful when we're talking about social change issues. I could see how the pictures and the music worked together really well. It sort of morphed into my own slide show, where I talk about music and social change and environmental issues," she says.
She's done this session at a lot of colleges and says, "My hope is to awaken something in these kids - 'Oh, you know, there could be a bigger purpose. I can be of service in a different way than just getting a job and making a living. There might be other ways that I can pay attention to what's possible in my own life.'"
Who: Kathy Mattea in concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 31
Where: Palmer Auditorium, Connecticut College, New London
Tickets: $28, $25 seniors, $14 students
Contact: (860) 439-2787, email@example.com