News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

October 14, 2010

Mark Bennett B-Sides: Inspirational ending half a world away brings thoughts of home for performer

TERRE HAUTE — The dilemma of miners, trapped deep below Earth’s surface, has tugged at Kathy Mattea’s heart before.

This time turned out differently. She could smile.

Late Tuesday night, Mattea sat on the couch of her Nashville home, glued to the TV, watching rescuers begin hoisting — one by one — 33 men out of a Chilean gold and copper mine. They’d spent 69 days in a dank, dark room a half-mile underground, after a section of the San Jose Mine in Copiago collapsed on Aug. 5. The success of the elaborate, international rescue effort drew cheers from around the planet.

“I was just riveted,” Mattea said by telephone Wednesday morning, “laughing and crying at the same time.”

Mattea writes and sings country and folk songs for a living, just as she’ll do in a Nov. 13 concert at Rose-Hulman’s Hatfield Hall. But mining frames the two-time Grammy winner’s upbringing. She grew up in West Virginia. Her grandfathers were coal miners. Her mom worked for the United Mine Workers of America. Her father avoided life in the mines when an uncle paid his way through college.

Two years ago, Mattea recorded the album “Coal,” inspired by the deaths of 12 miners in Sago, W.Va., on Jan. 2, 2006. The Sago tragedy triggered her youthful memories of the Farmington, W.Va., mine disaster, which killed 78 miners in 1968.

By contrast, the Chilean saga “is just a joy,” she said.

“This never happens. This never happens,” Mattea repeated, in amazement. “They get trapped, and then they die. At Sago, one guy survived.”

Though the drama unfolded in a remote desert region in South America, where miners cull gold and copper at mind-boggling depths, the families of American coal miners could relate to the Chileans’ predicament. “It’s a half a world away,” Mattea said, “but there’s so much that they have in common with people who work underground. “It really is a brotherhood and a sisterhood. If you’ve been down there, you know.”

The realities of mining, the risks and rewards, became a cause for Mattea. Along with recording and performing vintage mountain coal-mining songs found on “Coal,” Mattea also speaks around her home state about issues such as mountaintop removal surface mining. She’s heard people explain how generations of their families have seen the mines as their only reliable source of income. “And yet there are people who have gone from having clear drinking water to having black water come out of their faucets” because of mining operations near their homes, Mattea said.

“And how do we listen to both of these people?” she added.

She’s not anti-mining or anti-coal. Instead, Mattea tries to generate a peaceful dialogue, where the environment, safety and livelihoods coexist.

“I’ve tried very hard to listen to everybody and to understand what it would be like to be in their shoes,” Mattea said.

Broaching the subject as a coal miner’s granddaughter in the heart of coal mining country takes guts. “Yes, it’s scary,” she said, “and, yes, I feel called to do it.”

That call first whispered at Mattea several years ago. Her parents were ailing, she’d left her record company after 17 years, and she and her husband had ridden out a shaky point in their marriage. “Your basic midlife crisis,” as Mattea put it. A friend suggested a unique remedy — service to people in need. Getting deeply involved in such service required spiritual assistance.

“It is challenging to say, ‘Yes,’ to something,” she said.

“It gets scary, and you say, ‘Who’s going to take care of me?’ and, ‘How big is this God I’ve put my faith in?’” Mattea added.

After the Sago mine disaster moved her to tears, Mattea began preparing to record “Coal.” The instrumentation around her powerful alto voice is sparse and acoustic. Each track is a cover of tunes by Americana songwriters such as Merle Travis, Hazel Dickens and Jean Ritchie. The Appalachian flavor of the music tested Mattea, who earned fame in the late ’80s and early ’90s with country music chart-toppers such as “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” “Where’ve You Been” and “Walking Away a Winner,” and winning back-to-back Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year awards.

In stark contrast, on “Coal,” Mattea bravely tackled Dickens’ “Black Lung” acapella.

In haunting fashion, alone, she sings, “Black lung, black lung, oh, your hand’s icy cold; as you reach for my life and you torture my soul.”

“It’s a capella, and it’s flat-out wide open,” she said. “You can’t fudge on it.”

Now 51 years old, Mattea discovered new strength in her voice. “I feel like I couldn’t have sung these songs at 20. I needed some maturity to sing them, and I feel they fit my voice perfectly,” she said.

Likewise, her immersion into her own “Coal” background became more than the “side project” she initially expected it to be.

“I just felt very deeply that I might be able to contribute something,” Mattea said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or

Upcoming performance

Who: Grammy-winning country-folk artist Kathy Mattea.

What: Concert in Rose-Hulman’s Performing Arts Series.

Where: Hatfield Hall, Rose-Hulman campus.

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 13.

Tickets: General admission, $32 each. Available by calling (812) 877-8544 or by visiting the Hatfield Hall ticket desk from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

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