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Mattea has collected songs of great historical significance, and the album functions as well as a historical document as it does a cohesive piece of music.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.
The Kathy Mattea CD is indeed excellent. I haven’t heard the McCoury and probably won’t hear much of it, since Del’s voice tends to annoy me
As for the politics of either CD, I will simply judge on the musical content and let it go from there. If a CD gets too political, I usually won’t buy it. Mattea’s CD succeeds well on a human level
The closest recent Country has come to songs about the Working Man is Eric Church songs. Also Alan Jackson’s song “The Little Man.” Brad Paisley also recorded “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” on the Part II album.
The hope is starting is November will be a new era for the Working Man because Obama and progressive/liberal Democrats are the people that support unions.
Working people supported Obama in the primaries. A lot of the people who supported Hillary in the primaries in The Appalachians supported her beacuse she is white. Hillary support for the working class in the primaries doesn’t make sense because she and her husband supported anti-working class laws like NAFTA.
Barack Obama is for working people because he suports unions.
The elists who said the things you are claiming weren’t in the Democratic Party, but in the media.
At first, when I heard Mattea’s CD, I wasn’t hooked because so much of it is mellow. Now, however, I’ve really come to appreciate it. I haven’t heard the McCurrie CD, because I tend not to get into his music, even though I usually love bluegrass. I’ll have to check it out though.
Kevin – you need to create a separate forum for political discussions
Unfortuantely this is being pictured in terms of race and one doesn’t need to be a racist to think Obama would make a deplorable president – a look at his voting record as a US Senator and as a member of the Illinois Senate should suffice for that purpose.
Not that I think McCain would make a good president – early on it was apparent that we would have poor choices emerge from the primaries (sigh)
I did get to listen to most of McCoury’s CD today at an independent record shop (yes they still exist). It’s okay, musically not as good as some of his previous efforts – I expect diehard fans will want it and the rest will give it a pass
For someone you thinks a separate forum is needed for political discussions, you’re certainly delving into one!
The point I made in the review is that the working poor, particularly in rural areas, are being largely ignored and not even country music is taking up their cause anymore. That they’re accused of being racist because of how they voted in a Democratic primary, of all things, just further demonstrates the general disdain that is pointed in their direction when they’re not just being ignored.
What’s funny about Allan’s comment is that he claims it was the media “elitists” making such accusations, and not the Democratic party, right after he said that Appalachian voters chose Hillary because she was white. Eighteen million people voted for her across the country, yet the ones who supported her in Appalachia are racist? Why them, and not anybody else? They’re accused of being the givers of prejudice when they’re actually on the receiving end, from demagogues in their own party. Not the leadership, but the actual voters. Pathetic.
I went ahead and purchased the album last night, since Del McCoury has only 3 songs and a share of a 4th. Del’s performances will never grow on me , but the rest of the album is pretty good, basically non-partisan and full of good performers and performances. I loved hearing the Fairfield Four with Bruce Hornsby, and one can never have too much Mac Wiseman as far as I am concerned. Chris Knight isn’t a very good vocalist but I can live with one song by him. There are several somgs that take repeated listening to really enjoy and I would love to hear “Moneyland” sung by someone else, like Mac Wiseman or Doc Watson
I bought Coal today, having heard good things about it, and I was blown away. It just became my 2nd favorite album ever, right behind There’s More Where That Came From by Lee Ann Womack. It’s just an expertly done album by Kathy, and I’ve never been a fan of hers, but now I am! My favorite song on the album is probably “Dark As A Dungeon”, because of the turn around in the third verse about the singer becoming coal.
Great review Kevin, of two very important albums. A very appropriate rhetorical pairing of two thematically similar CDs.
I hope that conditions are improving for coalminers, I know that Patty Loveless lost her Dad to black-lung disease, and I’m assuming Loretta Lynn’s father died of the same cause. I have heard of some improvements, but I’m sure conditions need to improve a whole lot more for these working heroes who supply such an important part of our nation’s energy needs.
I have the McCoury CD, and love the compilation and the advocacy of the working man. (But like Paul, I too am not a big fan of his voice). Of course I am a HUGE fan of Patty’s version of “Harlan” and I’m delighted Del included it on this album.
As for the politics, Democrats and Republicans have both been friend and foe to the working man, at various times, and in various ways.
I did vote for McCain, reluctantly, but I was intrigued that Ralph Stanley supported Obama, citing his support for the little guy. I hope he’s right!
And Allan, I don’t agree with your take on the so-called “racism” of the average Appalachian voter, but I do agree that Brad Paisley does an excellent version of “Harlan” as well!
I’m going to give Kathy Mattea’s Coal some serious consideration now, and look forward to hearing, if not purchasing her album.
Thanks again for the great review Kevin, and for the interesting comments everyone!