To say that Kentucky has a complicated relationship with coal is to take it lightly.
Generations of miners have worked to power the nation despite dangerous working conditions and long term health effects like Black Lung.
Although the economic power of coal in Kentucky has diminished, mines still impact millions of people. In addition to miners, local communities face contamination of the water supply. The Appalachians themselves have been forever changed by the removal of mountain tops.
The lingering effects of charcoal are motivating a new generation of Appalachian musicians. Inspired by heroism, sacrifice, neglect and greed as well as musicians like the late John Prine, they emerge with their own stories to sing along to the coal.
“’Dark Black Coal’ was written with the idea of never wanting my kids to have to risk their lives for a paycheck,” said Logan Halstead, whose viral song chronicles the experience of extracting the charcoal of his grandfather, his father and his uncle.
Other Appalachian artists like Eric Bolander, Cole Chaney, and the Local Honeys grapple with conflicting feelings about coal. Recently, they have found musical expression as the best way to raise awareness and inspire change.
Eric Bolander: “Cold men”
Even though his family didn’t work in the mines, singer-songwriter Eric Bolander couldn’t help but turn to music to voice his opinion on Blackjewel LLC’s brutal bankruptcy filing in 2019. The West Virginia-based company has left Appalachian miners without their last paycheck and countless abandoned mines without proper restoration. History made national news when the miners of Harlan Co. formed a blockade outside the mine they once worked, preventing the coal trains from leaving.
The idea to write a song came after Bolander performed a performance for unemployed miners at the Bell Theater in Pineville. “Cold men”, takes the perspective of a little girl whose father worked for the mine and was suddenly fired with no way to support her family. The song was released on February 5, 2021.
“I was moved by the plight of these workers and the courage it took to stand up for yourself and others,” said Bolander, a native of Lewis County. “I felt as a songwriter from a small town in Kentucky that I had to write a song that reflected that moment in history. These people have been wronged and deserve songs and stories written about them to help those in the future have enough courage to stand up for what is right.
Bolander hopes the song will help encourage others to stand up for what is right, stand firm in their beliefs, and support those who seek to have their voices heard.
“Coal has been a very important industry for our country and the Appalachian region for many years and I have tremendous respect for those who have worked and still work in the mines,” Bolander said. “But, there has been a lot of destruction and heartache associated with the industry which has unfortunately caused damage to some of the areas where these mines exist. Black lung and polluted water did not happen by accident and we should always be aware of bad conditions and bad business practices so that as we move forward, whatever the future of energy, we avoided making the same mistakes.
Cole Chaney: “coal shooter”
One of the youngsters (but not the youngest) who have appeared on the Kentucky music scene in recent months is Boyd County-born artist Cole Chaney. The 21-year-old comes from a family closely linked to the coal mines of eastern Kentucky which he integrates strongly into his music.
“Coal shooter” from his recent debut album “Mercy” tells the story of his second generation Irish immigrant grandfather who was pressured into working in the mines as a coal shooter when he was only 16 years old to support his family.
“My grandfather grew up in the mines and saw people die and be maimed by stones, but he always talks about work as something to be revered,” Chaney said. “Despite the harsh working conditions and mistreatment from the coal companies, most workers were just doing what they had to do to provide for their families. That is why I have no respect for the coal companies, but all respect for the miners themselves.
One of the most dangerous jobs in mining, charcoal burners were limited to 18 or older at the time, which Chaney’s grandfather was able to bypass because his father also worked at the same mine. The work involved countless young and nimble workers who had to rush into the caves to light up the fuses to set off the dynamite that would open new parts of the mine. The high-stakes work resulted in many coal shooters being seriously injured or killed by falling rocks, mis-timed fuses, and accidentally triggering detonators while biting to activate them.
Although the job was dangerous, Chaney’s grandfather escaped relatively unscathed despite nearly three decades of underground work. Now 74, he continues to be a great inspiration to Chaney and cries regularly when he hears “Coalshooter” played.
“There are generations that came before us that are way tougher than we can imagine and didn’t have much choice in what they did other than being purely survival instinct,” said Chaney. . “You had to do what was best for the greater good of your family. It’s really not much different from a 17 year old who is shipped to Normandy. You face death in the face every day, sacrificing your body and your future in order to bring your family out of dire straits.
Logan Halstead: “Dark Black Coal”
Another newcomer to the scene is West Virginia-based 17-year-old artist Logan Halstead, who only started performing live in March after a video of his song. “Dark black charcoal” went viral at the end of last year.
Based in Charleston, Halstead is well versed in charcoal farming. His grandfather, father and uncle all worked in the mines at one point and Halstead recounts his family’s experiences on ‘Dark Black Coal’, describing a rough blue collar life that he hopes others will. savings. He sings: “Dark black coal / Take my soul / I owe it to you anyway / Don’t leave my children / Become the victims / Evil mountain ways.”
While Halstead hopes for a better and more prosperous future for the Appalachians on “Dark Black Coal,” he also longs for more respect for those who have borne the burden of mining coal and keeping the lights on for the rest of the world. country for generations.
Despite the decline in mining, Halstead said he sees the scars in the mountains he used to roll on a daily basis flattened by surface mining and mountain top removal.
“I would like to think that the coal companies are trying to give back to our environment, but when I still have friends who live without clean water in 2021 because they live under a mine, it is difficult to give me back. hope, ”Halstead said.
For years, the Local Honeys, centered around the duo of Montana Hobbs and Linda Jean Stokley, have spoken openly about environmental issues, the injustices of the coal companies and more in the Appalachians.
In 2017, the “Cigarette Trees” written by Stokley, lamenting the misfortunes of mountain top removal, won top honors in the bluegrass category of the Chris Austin Songwriting Competition at the 30th Annual Merlefest in North Carolina. Now the group is recognized for two more songs, “Octavia Triangle” and “Die for a living.”
A stripped-down and ancient ballad, “Octavia Triangle” refers to a mine in Pike County. The song was taught to The Honeys by one of their greatest musical mentors, Jimmy McCown, in what is likely his last recording before he died in 2020. Originally written by McCown’s mother, the song tells the tragic story. of a love story gone wrong. the dark depths of the Octavia mine.
“This song means more to us than most and depicts a haunting scene of regret in the Kentucky coalfields,” The Local Honeys said in a Feb. 8 press release. “Jim left this world in a better place in 2020… We are honored to have had him as a friend, mentor and inspiration to share and teach the traditional music that makes us.”
The other song, “Dying To Make A Living,” came after the Honeys heard a traditional adaptation of the song at a festival in Letcher County a few years ago. Soon after, they began incorporating the song, modernized by WV Hill and AJ Mullins, into their shows. The decision to register it was boosted by the protests of the Blackjewel miners starting this summer.
“They literally mined the coal with their own hands,” Stokley said in a YouTube video posted Feb. 4, 2021. “This fuel is being used to power the whole world, so why not take better care of your people? You literally have people dying for a living and breaking their backs. “