The everyday experience of America’s working poor was once a cornerstone of country music. As recently as the economic downturn of the early nineties, their voices were being heard on country radio, with Travis Tritt singing “Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man” and Sawyer Brown documenting the plight of the farmer with “Café on the Corner.”
Today, the voice of working Americans struggling to get by has all but disappeared from the landscape of mainstream country music, and is yet another thread of the genre’s history that has been relegated to the Americana landscape. Two of the year’s best albums share this theme, telling the story of the working poor with distinctively different but equally compelling approaches.
Kathy Mattea has long incorporated themes of social justice into her work, and her environmental activism neatly dovetails with her aural chronicling of her family’s roots in West Virginia coal mining. Mattea had long contemplated doing an album of traditional songs that dealt with the coal miner’s experience, and the mine disasters and mountain stripping of recent years served as her motivation for her newest project. Produced by Marty Stuart, Coal tells the story of the poor working coal miner.
Mattea has collected songs of great historical significance, and the album functions as well as a historical document as it does a cohesive piece of music. It’s an album completely devoid of active preaching, Mattea takes the voice of the coal miners and their families on various songs, correctly trusting that simply allowing them to tell their stories will make the case for her.
The economic desperation is inseparably intertwined with the coal mining experience. The son of a coal miner recalls the money that his father was able to make when coal was booming, as he looks back in poverty on album-opener “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore.” In “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”, a man fears he will die in the mines if he doesn’t leave and he makes his getaway, farming tobacco far from Harlan. But when that plant stops selling, he’s forced to return to the coal mines, where he meets the very death he feared.
The album has its wistful moments, like the sentimental “Green Rolling Hills”, which has Mattea singing of the beauty of West Virginia, even though she knows she must leave it behind to have a chance at a better life. Another highlight is the achingly beautiful “Coming of the Roads”, which finds a young lady not mourning the death of her young lover, but rather the death of his idealism, as he embraces the coal mining life that he once railed against.
The album concludes with the Hazel Dickens classic “Black Lung.” Sung a cappella, the song ends the set with a mix of sorrow and righteous anger, as she takes the voice of a man who spent his life “digging his own grave.” As he falls ill, he is without a helping hand, dying the most painful of deaths. Appealing to his boss at the mines, he is turned away. There is a bitter edge to Mattea’s voice as she sings, “It seems you’re not wanted when you’re sick and you’re poor.” It’s boiled to a furious indignation as the man dies, and the boss has the nerve to show up at his grave with flowers. She seethes, “Take back those flowers, don’t you sing no sad songs. The die has been cast now. A good man is gone.”
While Mattea’s album keeps the focus on personal storytelling, Del McCoury’s Moneyland makes its case for the working poor in more explicit terms. With his band, McCoury has recorded an assortment of new songs, and complemented them with previously recorded tracks by other artists. The title cut rails against the corporate greed dominating America today, while “40 Acres and a Fool” mocks the rich man who dons the trappings of the working class life without actually doing the work.
The album includes compelling contributions from Patty Loveless (“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive) and Chris Knight (“A Train Not Running”). It also draws heavily on the work of Merle Haggard, arguably the greatest champion for the forgotten working poor in country music history. In addition to Haggard’s original recordings of “If We Make it Through December” and “What Happened?”, he duets with Marty Stuart on “Farmer’s Blues” and “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” is covered exquisitely by Emmylou Harris.
Moneyland makes clear its political intentions. McCoury writes in the liner notes that “the only way goal of this album is to send this message to Washington politicians”:
Over the last couple of decades, you have turned Rural America into a scene of devastation which can now best be described as “Forgotten America.” Not only do we believe it “Un-American” for Washington to be blind to the problems of small towns and rural areas, we believe it to be immoral…and there are an ever-growing number of us out here who are ready to stand up against this corrupt neglect of our culture and people.
As an added twist of the knife, the album opens and closes with Fireside Chats of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, recorded during the Great Depression. It’s a stark and depressing reminder that there once was a political party that fought for the “Forgotten America” that McCoury writes of in his liner notes. The roots of that party surfaced during the presidential primary this year, when the working poor voted in overwhelming numbers for Sen. Clinton, who made their interests the core of her message. These voters were dismissed by the elitists of her party that backed her opponent, their cause rejected as they were broadly painted as uneducated rubes, with accusations of racism spewed casually in their direction.
And so, the working poor remains in the background, made invisible by the indifference of our gatekeepers. Their story will not be told on country radio. Their cause will not be championed in the halls of Congress or on the presidential campaign trail. But their voices can still be heard by those who care to listen on the essential new records by Kathy Mattea and Del McCoury, as both albums work to make sure we remember all of those in Forgotten America.