In Which I Get to Hear Kathy Mattea on My Lunch Hour

January 31, 2013 at 5:58 pm 2 comments


Every once in a while, you get to stop what you’re doing at work and go do something completely different. Today I spent my lunch hour with a few hundred other Penn State staff and faculty, listening to Grammy-winning singer Kathy Mattea out at the Penn Stater Conference Center.

It wasn’t a concert, though Mattea did perform a couple of songs for us. Instead it was a presentation—complete with PowerPoint!—called “My Coal Journey.”

Mattea, who is in town to perform in Eisenhower Auditorium tomorrow night, grew up in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in the heart of coal-mining country. Both of her grandfathers were miners and were paid in scrip that could be used only at the company store. (When the practice of paying only in scrip was later banned, she said, the coal company would pay the miners one dollar in cash and the rest in scrip.)

But her “coal journey” really began in earnest just seven years ago, with the Sago mine disaster of January 2006. An explosion and collapse trapped 13 miners, and though early news reports said that 12 of them had survived, those reports proved to be heartbreakingly wrong: Rescuers found 12 bodies and only one survivor.

Kathy_Mattea“I couldn’t get it out of my head,” Mattea said. Two weeks later, she was invited to attend a presentation at Vanderbilt University, near her home in Nashville; the presentation turned out to be Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” slide show about climate change and the role of, as she puts it, “our appetite for fossil fuels.”

“Suddenly,” she said, “the conversation about coal was everywhere in my life.”

In the years since, Mattea has become an environmental activist, fighting especially against a controversial form of strip mining called mountaintop-removal mining. She showed aerial images of its effect on the landscape, and talked of 900-billion-gallon sludge ponds built on the mountaintops to contain the coal slurry. (“People living below get real nervous when it rains hard,” she said.) She cited a 2010 article on mountaintop-removal mining in Science magazine, in which researchers said, “Mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses.” In other words, she said, once it’s gone, it’s gone.

(As she spoke, I thought about the fact that coal is big—and controversial—not just in West Virginia but in Pennsylvania too; I couldn’t help but wonder whether there were Earth and Mineral Sciences faculty members in the audience and how her presentation was sitting with them.)

Mattea’s interest in coal eventually led to a 2008 album simply called Coal, and her most recent album—2012’s Calling Me Home—has a number of coal-themed songs as well. She performed four songs for us: Si Kahn’s “Lawrence Jones,” about a miner who was killed when a labor strike turned violent; a lovely version of Billy Ed Wheeler’s “The Coming of the Roads,” and Jean Ritchie’s “Black Waters” and “Now is the Cool of the Day.” It made me wish I had bought tickets to tomorrow night’s show.

“There’s a sense that music adds a perspective, some poetry” to the discussion of the issues, she said. And awareness, too: I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member who out went to hear Kathy Mattea sing and came back having learned a few things.

Tina Hay, editor

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. R Thomas Berner  |  February 1, 2013 at 7:05 am

    Frankly, I was surprised to hear that she got religion only 7 years ago. As she admitted, she grew up in coal country but didn’t get it. I grew up in coal country 60 years ago and it was pretty hard to miss.

  • 2. Sally Nimick  |  February 2, 2013 at 9:49 am

    I grew up in West Virginia, driving often through Kanawha County, On a recent trip back, I wanted to cry at what big coal has done to my beautiful mountains and what eliminating coal will do to to the many there who depend on the industry for everything, and, at the same time fear for their lives and their way of life. There,s nothing easy about this.

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