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Redemption Songs

Emmylou Harris and the moral center of American music

by Erik Reece

Published in the September/October 2010 issue of Orion magazine

ON A BEAUTIFUL SUMMER NIGHT, Emmylou Harris is taking the stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and it is quite a thing to see. In black cowboy boots and flowing black raiment, she lets the applause die down, then eases straight into a song about a woman dressed in black, who aims to shake the devil off her back—one of these days. I’ve been listening to Emmylou Harris sing “One of These Days” for going on thirty years, ever since I first dropped a needle on her record Elite Hotel and well, you know, fell in love.

I bought almost every Emmylou Harris record after Elite Hotel, and there have been a lot of them. What all those years of listening taught me is this: if you are looking for the moral center of American music, you can always find it pretty close to wherever Emmylou Harris happens to be standing. I’m speaking of integrity here, and let’s face it, most of what passes for country music these days is the sorriest nonsense to ever come from a car stereo.

Over a long career, Emmylou Harris has always and only recorded the best songs by the best songwriters in the folk-country-bluegrass tradition. Tonight, the last line of this first song—“There’s gonna be peace of mind for me, one of these days”—carries a new resonance because Emmylou Harris, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council, has organized this Music Saves Mountains concert to call attention to the mountaintop removal strip mining that is decimating southern Appalachia.

Many of the coalfield residents who both pray and fight for some peace of mind from the constant blasting, black water, and flooding caused by strip mining are here in the audience. Just one week ago the Cumberland River, which is fed by Appalachia’s headwater tributaries, did flood badly, rising up to the steps of the historic Ryman, where the Grand Ole Opry made its home from 1943 to 1974. The Opry got started in 1927, just four years before the novelist Theodore Dreiser formed an ad hoc committee (including writers Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, and Lewis Mumford) that held public hearings on poverty and hunger in Pineville, Kentucky. As part of her testimony, a woman named Aunt Molly Jackson sang a song she wrote called “Ragged Hungry Blues.” Thus began a deep association between mountain music and dissent, forged by an oppressed people looking to share their stories and call attention to their plight. 

That tradition, Emmylou Harris said after her first song, was why she wanted to celebrate southern Appalachia, “the sacred ground of country,” here, in “the mother church of country,” the Ryman. To that end, she enlisted some of the region’s finest voices—Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss, Kathy Mattea, Patty Griffin—and some of its best musicians—Sam Bush on mandolin, Alison Brown on banjo, Buddy Miller on guitar, among others. Over the next three hours, they all wove in and out of various ensembles, performing some of the region’s greatest, and inevitably saddest, songs.

After rendering a characteristically sad and beautiful version of Utah Phillips’s “Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia,” Ms. Harris said this song about homesickness and displacement has taken on a new meaning for her since she first heard Robert Kennedy Jr. speak about the menace of mountaintop removal, which has decapitated over five hundred peaks and poisoned thousands of miles of streams in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Harris’s home state of Tennessee.

“It seems like artists today, particularly country artists, tend to play it safe,” Ms. Harris said when I spoke with her by phone before the concert. “And I count myself in there. I’ve never been that comfortable with overtly political songs. But mountaintop removal is based on pure greed and it’s doing such incredible damage.”

The maddening irony that country singers would ignore the country—the particular landscapes that so influenced this genre—isn’t lost on Ms. Harris. Indeed the days of Merle Haggard singing “California Cottonfields” and “Tulare Dust” on the radio seem long gone. Country music stations today (almost all of them owned by Clear Channel) won’t touch the populist likes of Haggard or Cash. Instead we’re left with Toby Keith’s latest single, “American Ride,” which doesn’t so much deny global warming as revel in it: “That’s us, that’s right, / Gotta love this American ride. / Both ends of the ozone burnin’. / Funny how the world keeps turnin’ . . .” Nor does Brad Paisley find anything awry in “Welcome to the Future,” which turns out to be an homage to the iPhone.

Listen up, people: this is not what the founders of country music bequeathed to us. They gave us an art form that rendered pain bearable and bound communities together through stories.

And as coal mining replaced farming in Appalachia during the early 1900s, those stories grew increasingly dark. The Ryman concert captured that evolution in haunting fashion. Kathy Mattea channeled the great Jean Ritchie in “Black Waters,” a song about pristine streams ruined by strip mines. While committing some acts of journalism, I have spent far more time than I would ever wish wandering around strip jobs in Perry County, Kentucky, so it was especially satisfying to hear Mattea punch the line about strip miners: “But if I had ten million, somewhere thereabouts / I would buy Perry County and I’d run ’em all out!” Singing backup, Emmylou Harris punctuated that sentiment with a sharp pump of her fist.

Unfortunately, as the evening wore on, those hard-times ballads started to sound more like journalism than anything else. Crueler still, they sounded like journalism from last week. In “The Mannington Mine Disaster,” Hazel Dickens tells of a West Virginia mine explosion that killed seventy-eight men in 1968, but it might just as well be about the blast that killed twenty-nine miners last April at a Massey Energy mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. More to the point, Dickens’s lines—“How can God forgive you, you do know what you’ve done. / You’ve killed my husband, now you want my son”—could, and should, have been leveled directly at Massey CEO Don Blankenship.

The West Virginia tragedy seemed to be on many people’s minds at the Ryman. Patty Loveless dedicated “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” to the fallen miners, and when she sang the last line, “And you spend your life digging coal from the bottom of your grave,” the clinch of death hovered for a moment over us all.

It may be apparent by now that a vast swath of these songs were written and performed by women (the only time the Music Saves Mountains concert faltered was when Dave Matthews dismissed the backup band, adopted a patronizing hillbilly accent, then played four offbeat songs with no discernible subject matter). Women have often led the resistance, both with their voices and their physical presences, against strip mining in Appalachia. The excellent archival volume Voices from the Mountains, published by University of Georgia Press, reproduces photographs of the Widow Ollie Combs being dragged off her own land by sheriffs’ deputies, and of Bessie Smith standing in the middle of a road, her arms raised to halt a Mack truck loaded with coal. And it reprints Sarah Ogan Gunning’s song “Come All You Coal Miners,” which ends: “Let’s sink this capitalist system in the darkest pits of hell.” Can you imagine hearing that on a contemporary country station? But Gunning had watched neighbors’ children die of starvation in the eastern Kentucky coal camps. And she knew why. As her sister Molly Jackson sang on an Alan Lomax recording:

The bosses ride fine horses
While we walk in the mud,
Their banner is the dollar sign
While ours is striped in blood.

Why did the women see this more clearly than the men? Perhaps the men did not want to question the rigidly patriarchal culture of the coalfields. Perhaps they feared for their jobs. Or perhaps the spirit of the ancient goddesses, with their sacred groves of trees, never fully succumbed to the masculine violence of Gilgamesh. Certainly that violence has a long, unabating history, and I was reminded of it again when I saw West Virginia activist Maria Gunnoe, who has received repeated death threats for protesting the flooding and blasting around her home, in the audience at the Ryman.

Overall, the Music Saves Mountains concert made one thing especially clear: country music desperately needs a new narrative, one that taps into the urgency and empathy that was on display at the Ryman. It is time for the musicians who claim some attachment to Appalachia to better ground their work in a stronger sense of place and a moral responsibility to this imperiled region. (Daniel Martin Moore and Ben Sollee, two artists from my hometown of Louisville, have begun this necessary work with their fine new CD Dear Companion, which was released by Sub Pop in February. If you are looking for a musical entry into the issue of mountaintop removal, I suggest downloading their song “Flyrock Blues.”)

At the end of the evening, Emmylou Harris brought all of the artists back on stage to sing the one song about strip mining that most people know, John Prine’s “Paradise.” There is no question that Mr. Peabody’s coal train continues to haul away, ever faster, what many of the singers at the Ryman called the sacred ground of southern Appalachia. After the song was over, Ms. Harris urged the audience to take the story of mountaintop removal beyond the Ryman, to get the word out and stop the violence. 

Can music save mountains? Certainly not by itself. But there is a reason Walter Pater said that all art aspires toward the condition of music. More than any other art form, music can connect the head to the heart, the self to the social whole. After all, the fiddle tunes that began in the mountains of Appalachia were never meant for an “audience.” That music was intended to draw people together, to involve them in something communal and collective. Now a new collective conscience must be mobilized in order to preserve the mountains where this music was born.

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Erik Reece is the author of An American Gospel. He teaches writing at the University of Kentucky .

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