Kathy Mattea has always been an odd country music star. She's an environmental activist in a genre that often glorifies gas-guzzling trucks. She's a classically trained singer with folk leanings in a business now dominated by simplistic pop-rock. And she's a Catholic in a world in which most of the artists, and their audiences, are evangelical Protestants.
But there's no doubting Mattea's country roots. Among her biggest hits is a truck driving song, "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses." She was born in a small town near Charleston, West Virginia. Her grandfathers were coal miners, and her mother worked for the United Mine Workers.
That heritage dominates her new album, a collection of classic songs about the lives and struggles of coal mining communities. Most of the songs are familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Appalachian culture: Jean Richie's "Blue Diamond Mine," Merle Travis' "Dark As a Dungeon," Hazel Dickens' "Black Lung." They tell of company gun squads killing union miners, fatal accidents, and the economic devastation left when the mine industry moves on. Mattea performs the songs in understated acoustic bluegrass, settings that spotlight her evocative alto.
The impetus for this recording came from the 2006 Sago disaster, which killed 12 West Virginia miners. But the album also represents Mattea's attempt at working out a tension that is coming to define Appalachia. Coal has long provided the only steady source of economic development for many communities. But now mountaintop removal mining is destroying the mountains, and coal's contribution to global warming is doing irreparable harm to the earth.
In her spare time, Mattea makes personal appearances delivering Al Gore's global warming slide show, An Inconvenient Truth. With Coal, she gives testimony to the other side of the equation, the price mountain people have paid to keep our homes warm and illuminated.