Berklee Riffs: Kathy Mattea on Coal

Brenda Pike
March 11, 2011
Kathy Mattea at a 2005 recording session at Berklee.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Country and bluegrass singer Kathy Mattea has a unique viewpoint on the coal industry. She grew up in West Virginia, and both her grandfathers were miners. One of them even helped organize the United Mine Workers. Yet she's also a dedicated environmentalist who travels the country presenting Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth slideshow. These two sides to her aren't actually as disparate as one might think.

When the Grammy-winning performer gave a clinic at Berklee this week about her newest album, Coal, she used the occasion to educate people on the effects of coal mining. She pointed out that coal doesn't just have an impact on world climate change, but on the small towns where it's mined. Disasters like the one that trapped 33 miners in Chile last year are just the tip of the iceberg. Mountaintop leveling not only destroys ecosystems, she said, but creates health hazards for people living nearby, including polluted water, mysterious cancer clusters, and massive amounts of coal sludge straining unreliable dams.

However, Mattea also recognized that mining is a monoculture in many of these towns, so any disruption in the coal industry would have devastating effects on the local economy. "If coal mining goes away, jobs go away," she said. "People are left with nothing." Any real solution would have to also provide work for the many thousands of people employed by the mines.

Since conversations about the impact of mining have often turned violent in the past, especially for striking miners, Mattea has used techniques she's learned at the Center for Nonviolent Communication to try to bring together people from both sides of the issue. She admitted to feeling inadequate to the work—"I'm just a chick singer, just a girl from West Virginia. What can I do?"—but at the same time recognized that "there's no one that has my particular set of experiences. Maybe that will be helpful to someone."

For the album, Mattea said, "I went back through the lexicon of folk music and found anything I could about coal music." What struck her was how similar the problems were from decade to decade: "The story keeps echoing through the generations." As part of her presentation at the clinic, she performed coal-themed songs by Jean Ritchie, Billy Edd Wheeler, and Si Kahn.

to Kathy Mattea's "Red-Winged Blackbird"

Mattea said that by drawing attention to the complex issues of the coal industry, "I'm finding all kinds of ways to use my voice that I never imagined." She exhorted the Berklee community to use their own particular gifts in service of a greater good.


Berklee Riffs offer snapshots of day-to-day life at the college.