Kathy Mattea Coal

One of the biggest stars in country music in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Mattea has turned her back on mainstream Nashville, opting for a more genuine roots-based direction. Her sales may have suffered but her artistic credibility is intact. It will be boosted by Coal, her superb new album. As the title indicates, a unifying theme is that of the life of the coal miner, and Mattea’s own background (she was born in West Virginia and both her grandfathers were miners) ensures authenticity. Its setting may be Virginia and Kentucky but this is not a strictly bluegrass album. It takes more of a country-tinged folk approach and the purity of Mattea’s voice best fits this setting. The tasteful production is courtesy of Marty Stuart, who contributes mandolin and acoustic guitar. Fellow ace players Byron House, Stuart Duncan and Bill Cooley are also featured but the focus is always on Mattea’s voice. Songs covered include tunes from Merle Travis, Jean Ritchie, Si Kahn, Utah Phillips and bluegrass legend Hazel Dickens. The harsh existence of these men of the deep is explored in realistic yet poetic fashion in the material, while "Coming Of The Roads” takes a critical look at the destructive practice of mountaintop mining. Coal’s tour-de-force is her closing a cappella version of Dickens’ "Black Lung.” With lines like "black lung has got him, his time is nigh,” this is harrowing stuff. It segues into a short instrumental elegy written by Stuart, capping off one powerful record. (Brassland)