Up close and personal with Appalachian legends
Note: This is the seventh installment from “The Hillbilly Highway, Volume 2: Seeds, Songs and Streams.” Learn more here.
By Michael M. Barrick
BLACK MOUNTAIN, N.C. – Considering the number of times that our family has seen Kathy Mattea in concert, it is a wonder that she does not have a restraining order against us. We behave, but we are enthusiastic. So, you can appreciate my delight at finding out that Ms. Mattea was going to be in Black Mountain this past Saturday at a legendary listening room, the White Horse Black Mountain.
My wife and I had a rare, impromptu opportunity to scoot out for a date, so I was snooping around on the web (it does have its value) and typed in her name. Up came up an event posting with this sign:
Immediately, I realized this wasn’t “simply” a Kathy Mattea concert; in addition, there was going to be Appalachian story-telling. As the marquee said in shorthand, Ms. Mattea was going to be there to converse with Billy Edd Wheeler. Mr. Wheeler, 85, had written songs that Ms. Mattea used on her album “Coal,” released in 2008. Three of the eleven songs were written by Mr. Wheeler – “Red Winged Blackbird,” “Coal Tattoo,” and “The Coming of the Roads.” The lyrics to Wheelers’ songs (and the others) can be found here. You can listen to Ms. Mattea’s version of “Coal Tattoo.”
Indeed, when that album was released, we saw Ms. Mattea in concert. That is one of the joys of her albums and concerts. They are often thematic, but she doesn’t forget what other songs her fans love. In any event, when I looked at the lineup, I knew we were in for a treat even better than a concert. We were going to hear from Appalachian artistic legends – if I could get tickets.
So, I called and was fortunate enough to score two of the last tickets. Sweet serendipity was in play now, so I was beginning to have a peaceful, anticipatory sense of what awaited us.
My instincts or whatever you care to call them were spot on. Douglas Orr, the president emeritus of Warren Wilson College, moderated a conversation with Mr. Wheeler about his new book, “Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout: A hillbilly poet’s journey from Appalachia to Yale writing hits for Elvis, Johnny Cash & more.”
Mr. Wheeler attended Warren Wilson on his winding path to Yale and a lifetime of writing hits for Appalachian legends. A member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Mr. Wheeler has written hits for Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Judy Collins, Neil Young, The Kingston Trio, Kenny Rogers and others.
He now lives in Swannanoa, N.C., but like Ms. Mattea, is a West Virginia native. So, the conversation meandered between the history and music of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Allegheny Plateau that constitutes much of West Virginia. He and Ms. Mattea discussed with compassion and wisdom the complexity of singing about coal mining, alluding to the love/hate relationship that so many mountaineers have with coal. If you’d like more insight on that, read the “Coal” liner notes by Homer Hickam, another West Virginia native who grew up in coal country (Coalwood). He gained fame for his book, “Rocket Boys” about growing up in late 1950s West Virginia. It was made into the movie, “October Sky.”
It was a lovely diversion, much like slowly chugging down a gravel road is from the insanity of interstate driving. In other words, it was a great stop along the Hillbilly Highway. I suspect that if during your travels you happen to run into any of the folks we saw Saturday night, you will understand why I consider being called a hillbilly a compliment and a term of endearment.
Mr. Wheeler was understated – humble – in his responses, but he was also typically blunt, a trait not uncommon to West Virginians. Ms. Mattea, meanwhile also exemplified Mountaineer humility, demonstrating once again why we love her so. She is releasing her newest album, “Pretty Bird” on Sept. 7, though she’ll be previewing it on Mountain State at the closing of the Augusta Heritage Festival in Elkins, W.Va on Aug. 11. She never once mentioned either the album or concert.
It was clear that she cared about one thing – letting the 200-plus folks in attendance know just what Billy Edd Wheeler meant to her and all of Appalachia.
So, all ears were perked as Mr. Wheeler talked about his youth in High Coal (or Highcoal, depending upon who is spelling it). Though now abandoned, it is seen on the map in Boone County, near the junction with Raleigh and Kanawha counties – the heart of the deep, dark coalfields of southern West Virginia. It is near here that the West Virginia Mine Wars occurred a century ago and where Bill Blizzard, Mother Jones and thousands of others risked their lives to unionize the mines.
Between stories, Ms. Mattea and the band Whitewater Bluegrass would play one of Mr. Wheeler’s tunes after he had shared the history of it.
Essentially, it was what was once a typical summer evening in Appalachia. No air conditioning, lots of tall tales, toe-tapping music on the front porch and – at our house anyway – Pabst Blue Ribbon.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2018.
Note: I have no quotes from last Saturday, because I was there to enjoy time with my wife, listen to story-telling and music, and drink beer. At that, I succeeded. However, I’m not good at multi-tasking, so I couldn’t take notes. So, I will eventually write a review of Mr. Wheeler’s book – between PBRs. Or, if you prefer, you can get a copy at Black Mountain Books & Cases at 103 Cherry Street in Black Mountain.
Causes of coal’s decline are free market forces
By Michael M. Barrick
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Claims by coal industry officials that President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are waging a “War on Coal” are nothing more than propaganda. One of their own proved that recently when speaking at the West Virginia Coal Association meeting here. Ernie Thrasher, CEO of Pennsylvania-based exporting firm Xcoal Energy told the Jan. 28 gathering, “We’ve got a lot of things working against us that we don’t have any influence on,” according to a story by reporter Jared Hunt of the Charleston Daily Mail.
In short, the free market – not the EPA – is creating a bleak outlook for the industry.
In a rare moment of candor, Mr. Thrasher revealed the truth about the coal industry’s decline. That is because, according to the Daily Mail report, “While exports once helped buoy U.S. coal producers, exporters will face tough international markets for at least three to four years…” It added, “Coal accounts for about half of West Virginia’s exports. In the early part of the decade, growth in international coal markets helped push state coal exports to record levels — $5.3 billion in 2011 and $7.4 billion in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But as the market began to soften in 2013, total state coal exports fell 39 percent to about $4.5 billion.”
The problem is as simple as the first lesson of economics – price is set by supply and demand. Hunt reported, “Thrasher said that while there’s still demand for coal worldwide, the problem is just too much supply. That’s keeping international prices at depressed levels. It’s not just a coal problem, he said. The same factors are affecting other commodities, including oil, natural gas and iron ore. ‘The problem is that there’s too much of everything in the world today,’ Thrasher said.”
While the world economy has been growing since coming out of the economic crisis of 2008, that growth has slowed from 3.5 percent to 2.5 percent. He cited also China economic policy, financial stimulus packages adopted by many nations in response to the 2008 worldwide recession, poor investments and overproduction by coal companies, and “…extraordinary weather-related events between 2009 and 2012, including avalanches in Canada and floods in Australia, (which) temporarily curtailed production in those coal producing regions.” (There was no indication if he recognized the irony of climate change having a negative impact upon the coal industry).
Thrasher warned, “You just can’t mine coal and sell it at the same price you did in 2005.” The article continued, “He said many companies will likely have to sell or restructure, or go out of business altogether, in the coming years in light of the expected market conditions. ‘If you’re patient and have the financial wherewithal, you might be able to weather the next few years,’ Thrasher said.”
So, the mythical “War on Coal” must be recognized for what it is – an attempt by the coal industry to distract us from the real issue we must consider – the proven, detrimental impact of coal production and use upon people, air, water and eco-systems, in particular in Appalachia. Of course, the industry wants us to believe that the EPA and the president are the ones “killing jobs.” It is ironic, to put it mildly, that the coal industry would feign concern for its workforce in light of the industry’s history, including a century of disregard for safety and the resurgent epidemic of black lung disease.
The fact that the coal industry is being disingenuous regarding the cause of its decline demonstrates how the people of Appalachia can be adversely impacted by not only the tactics of the industry, but the elected officials the industry hand-picks and finances. Additionally, there are very, very few truly independent press or media outlets in the region. So, this triumvirate of industry, politicians and the press, which places profits and power over the welfare of people and the land – is effectively stifling honest debate regarding the costs and benefits of the coal industry.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project, which is assisting with the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” conference scheduled for April in Charleston. Learn more here.
Divided loyalties led to state’s founding and continue to this day
By Michael M. Barrick
On June 20, 1863, West Virginia became the nation’s 35th state. It was the only state born out of the Civil War. That legacy of birth in our nation’s greatest internal conflict has dominated the state’s history and continues to this day.
In short, West Virginia was – and is – a state of divided loyalties. While a state comprised of intensely proud and independent-minded people, its progress has been largely hindered by these ongoing conflicts of loyalty. Indeed, this history calls into question the state’s motto – Montani Semper Liberi (Latin for “Mountaineers are always Free”).
An honest exploration of the state’s history is a study in outside forces raiding the state’s natural resources, even as those who labored to harvest those resources were left in and remain in poverty. From the removal of virtually all of the state’s virgin forests in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the proud but mixed history of coal mining, to the current debate over the benefits and harm of natural gas fracturing (fracking) are all causes for the divided loyalties.
However, this conflict of cultures began even before the state’s founding. A brief look at the role played by prominent citizens of Harrison County during the Civil War illustrates just how nuanced the history of the 55-county state – and the only state situated entirely in Appalachia – is.
Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, one of the most revered generals of the Confederacy, was born in Clarksburg, the seat of Harrison County. Born on Main Street in 1824, Jackson graduated from West Point, served in the Mexican-American War and then began a career as a teacher at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington Va. It was there that he was working and living when the Civil War started in 1861. He immediately sided with the South and was famous in short order for his brilliant and determined military strategy. His legacy as a hero was forever cemented upon his death from friendly fire in May 1863.
Just one month later, the region he left behind was formed as a Union-friendly state. Ironically, it was also Harrison County residents that were among those most responsible for the establishment of West Virginia. John S. Carlisle and other Harrison County leaders were among those who led the Wheeling Conventions (May and June 1861), which ultimately repealed the Ordinance of Secession passed by Virginia.
Two years later, West Virginia was a state, established by proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln. The history of divided loyalties had begun.
It has been most evident in recent years because of the practice and impact of coal mining known as Mountain Top Removal (MTR). Today, one cannot travel the highways of West Virginia without passing countless cars with competing bumper stickers regarding the issue. Those in favor of MTR and generally supportive of the coal mining industry sport bumper stickers that read “Friends of Coal.” Those opposed to MTR and generally concerned about the human and environmental degradation that is synonymous with the industry, display bumper stickers that assert, “I heart (heart symbol) mountains.”
Even more recently, the introduction of fracking, especially in the northern regions of the state, has created significant divisions. There is no disputing that the gas industry is providing the region with many decent-paying jobs. For an area that has been economically depressed for more than 40 years, these jobs are welcomed. Yet, fracking is not without consequences. The neighboring state of Ohio, for example, is presently studying the process as a man-made cause of earthquakes. In addition, questions remain as to whether ground water is impacted by the process. Furthermore, the weight of the tanker trucks and other heavy equipment required for the process are ruining roads throughout the region. It also makes for dangerous driving on narrow roads. Finally, the question of mineral rights is causing conflict, as fracking companies are benefitting from laws that allow them to extract gas from land despite landowner’s objections.
Sandwiched in between the Civil War and the current “War on Coal” (as described by coal interests) are numerous examples of conflicted loyalties.
Perhaps the most famous is the West Virginia Coal Wars of the early 1920s. Coal miners, upset with conditions in the coal mines and company-owned towns and stores, broke into open revolt, leading to The Battle of Blair Mountain. Ironically, a modern-day Battle of Blair Mountain continues over MTR.
Another mining disaster in the winter of 1972 along Buffalo Creek in southern West Virginia left at least 125 people dead, another 1,100 injured and at least 4,000 homeless. Additionally, the state has a long history of mine disasters, the most recent being at Upper Big Branch in Raleigh County.
This history of conflict – in particular over the benefits and harms of coal mining – was captured beautifully by West Virginia native Kathy Mattea on her CD, “Coal.” Anyone who has been blessed to hear Ms. Mattea perform from this work understands just how conflicted the people of the state are. The jobs are welcomed – and needed. The thousands of deaths in the coalfields and the environmental destruction are not.
So, today, all throughout the Mountain State, people will celebrate its birthday. I will too, in my hometown of Clarksburg. I will do so, however, with a conflicted heart. I am sure I am not the only one.
© Michael Barrick / Appalachian Chronicle, 2014.