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After the Coal Rush

There is a war going on for the soul of Appalachia, a war over coal and music. In a May 16 editorial penned for the Nashville Tennessean, singer Emmylou Harris described the core of it: “Mountaintop removal is an extreme form of strip mining where coal companies use high-powered explosives to decimate mountaintops and ridgelines in search of thin seams of coal. The discarded earth is then dumped into the valleys and streams below, poisoning water supplies and destroying irreplaceable ecosystems. To date more than 500 Appalachian mountains have been dynamited and nearly 2,000 miles of rivers and streams have been choked by this irreverent practice. The Appalachians are the only mountain range in the country where this practice is allowed.”

Three nights later, Harris was part of a Music Saves Mountains concert in Nashville, which also included Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss, Patty Griffin, Big Kenny, and Dave Matthews. The spirit of the night was summed up in the finale, a version of John Prine’s “Paradise” sung by Harris, Krauss, Mattea, and Loveless:

“And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”

The war over coal is also found in the grooves and it goes beyond mountaintop removal. For instance, Kathy Mattea’s album Coal–inspired by a 2006 West Virginia deep mine disaster which killed twelve miners–explores the death and fear and disease which go with all forms of coal mining. Coal finds an echo in this summer’s Dierks Bentley album, Up on the Ridge, which concludes with the harrowing “Down in the Mine.” Mattea’s album includes Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” a song wild in its pain and wild in its beauty which has also been covered by Patty Loveless and Brad Paisley. Check out Scott’s chilling performance and Paisley’s fierce pro-miner music video.

Away from Nashville, local musicians are also on the front lines. A number of them were booked to perform at the Kentucky Experience Pavilion during the World Equestrian Games this fall in Lexington, Kentucky. But artists were told that Alliance Coal had paid $275,000 to be a Pavilion sponsor, that the venue would be called Alliance Coal Pavilion, and, to add insult to injury, that they’d have to perform in front of a banner proclaiming “Clean Coal.” In the face of this corporate coup, several musicians pulled out.

“I could not in good conscience allow myself to be used as an advertisement for an industry that has bought and corrupted our legislature and consistently blocked all efforts by our state to move ahead on sustainable energy,” said John Harrod of Kentucky Wild Horse.

The Reel World String Band also withdrew, perhaps to avoid the spectacle of performing its song “The Taking” (with it’s line about “the greed of the coal companies”) at an event bought and paid for by Big Coal. Sue Massek, the group’s bass player, sent a letter to the Kentucky Arts Council, attacking mountaintop removal mining for “devastating hundreds of square miles of Appalachia.” When told that Alliance Coal only operates deep mines in Kentucky, Massek replied: “It’s the whole coal industry that does the mountaintop removal, so that doesn’t make a difference, and they’re all pushing for this clean coal, and there’s no such thing as clean coal.”

The war over coal also pits musician against musician. Labor Day in 2009 saw a pro-coal “Friends of America” rally sponsored by the coal industry at an abandoned strip mine in Holden, West Virginia. The special guest speaker was rightwing talkmeister / Oliver North compadre Sean Hannity. Performers included Hank Williams, Jr., John Rich, Ted Nugent, Blackwater Outlaws, Taylor Made, and Halfway to Hazard. When Kentucky coal miner Jessee Mullins wrote and recorded “Hey, Tree Hugger,” the Virginia Mining Association posted it on its website. The West Virginia Coal Association gives away pro-mining ring tones.

The coal industry these musicians ally with is the same one responsible for an unrelenting epidemic of on the job coal miner deaths over the past century (1,288 in Harlan County, Kentucky alone). These events are called accidents. Was it an “accident” when two miners were killed in Hopkins County, Kentucky on May 17 in a mine which had been cited 2,973 times for safety violations since 2005?

What kind of people run the coal industry? After actress Ashley Judd gave an eloquent speech denouncing mountaintop removal at the National Press Club on June 9, the industry’s response was to put up a picture of a topless Judd on a poster displayed at an industry-sponsored golf tournament in Prestonburg, Kentucky. It read: “Ashley Judd makes a living taking her top off, why can’t miners?” The StoneCrest Golf Club where the tournament was held was built on a former coal mining site.

The coal industry and its friends in music and politics insist that the need for jobs trumps the need to protect the environment. Nonsense. The coal industry’s shift to new technology is what has eliminated jobs. There were 488,000 coal miners in 1950; 131,000 in 1990; less than 80,000 today. Nor is coal mining a boon to the Appalachian economy. According to new studies, the coal industry’s net yearly cost to the state of West Virginia is $97.5 million; $114 million in Kentucky, and $3 million in Tennessee. Those are losses, not gains.

It’s true that in coal country there are few well-paying jobs other than mining. Does this mean we have to allow the coal industry to destroy Appalachia and destroy the earth as well? There are 1.1 million people who work in the health insurance industry. Does the existence of these jobs mean we can’t have a universal health care system that would eliminate them while working better for everyone? Instead of allowing the coal companies and HMOs to pit us against each other, why not put all of our needs in one pot and promote having it all as a vision? A government which can blithely hand out a trillion dollars in corporate bailout money can certainly provide jobs or income for ex-miners, ex-insurance clerks, and everyone else.

The people of the devastated Appalachian homeland, who live under the specter of mine “accidents” and coal waste dams collapsing, who suffer from black lung, must be in the forefront of the battle over coal. It’s also true that the greening of Appalachia is part of the need to green the entire country. Coal is everywhere: Toxic contamination (arsenic, lead) of drinking water from the coal ash waste generated by power plants has now reached dangerous levels at 137 sites in 34 states. The coal companies and the power structures behind them which we must overcome in order to stop being poisoned are national in scope. The problem of coal is bigger than coal itself. The issue is fossil fuels in general, as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico confirmed with a savage clarity.

The universal outrage over that criminal act indicates the scope of potential alliances. Musicians too—dozens of artists, including Korn, Disturbed, Lady Gaga, and Rob Zombie, have committed to boycott fuel sold by BP on their 2010 tours. Although a boycott of just one oil company doesn’t lead to a viable solution, it’s good that the issue of fossil fuel has now created a potential linkage between mountain music and heavy metal, with all the New Orleans musicians who’ve written oil spill songs this past summer in the mix as well.

The civil rights movement was able to keep its eyes on the prize—“Freedom!”—in large part because music was an essential part of its fabric. Music is equally essential on the journey to a healthy planet which keeps its fossil fuels underground where they belong.

[Thanks to Art Menius for help in reporting this story.]

LEE BALLINGER is co-editor of Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: rockrap@aol.com.