By: Dennis Cook
Quite possibly the roots album of the year, Coal (Captain Potato), is all the smudged moan of Leadbelly and Charlie Poole, Christy Moore and Dougie MacLean, nuanced by the modernist bent of Chris Thile and touched by the timeless inner flame of producer Marty Stuart. That's quite the luminaries laundry list but it's not as if Kathy Mattea is new to this rodeo. A fixture in the folk-country scene since the early '80s, Mattea has never sung with more feeling or roughhewn grace, and this perfectly chosen material, given empathetic settings, very tasty pickin' and thoughtful sequencing, reveals the roots granddame she's matured into.
October Sky & Rocket Boys author Homer Hickam's liner notes begin, "I grew up in Coalwood, West Virginia, where every adult male worked for the mine, where every house was owned by the company, and where the entire focus of our being was an 800-foot shaft into the earth." Initially inspired by the death of twelve miners in 2006 at the Sago Mine in West Virginia, each tune ruminates on some aspect of coal mining life. While overarching themes like this can often grow tiresome or forced, Mattea and Stuart call this dance with measured beauty. Dipping into the catalogs of Jean Ritchie, Hazel Dickens, Si Kahn, Utah Phillips, Merle Travis and contemporary Darrell Scott, the resiliency and inner moan of black dust families is etched with real care, real artistry and most importantly, real feeling. Mattea's ideally pitched singing – full of feeling but never overwrought – is balanced and accented on by the sensitive, intuitive ensemble playing of the core band – Stuart (mandolin, acoustic guitar), Byron House (upright bass), Stuart Duncan (fiddle, acoustic guitar) and Bill Cooley (acoustic guitar).
It'd be hard to go too far in praising Coal, a work moist with tears and sweat, bolstered by hard understanding and tough won joy. Like much of Marty Stuart's recent work, Coal suggests the start of late career renaissance, where all the years, lessons and bare fisted engagement with the music industry (and capital "L" life, in general) has brought a stirring artist right to the very heart of what made her want to create music in the first place, bolstered by experience and able to offer no little wisdom to anyone willing to listen.
JamBase | Down In The Mine
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