Mattea's vision of coal miners in the Appalachians is both sympathetic and unflinchingly honest, recognizing the harm caused by "black coal" as well as the unbridled lust with which many pursue its riches.
I don't get no opinion
With four mouths to feed
I'd sell off my future
To get what we need
-- The Elms, "Bring Me Your Tea"
The September 11th release of Calling Me Home, Kathy Mattea's fourteenth studio LP, is fitting given the subject material. The plight of the coal miner has been around for a considerable amount of time in the history of the United States, but when "the world stopped turning on that September day", the state of things for blue-collar workers changed significantly. 9/11 may not have changed everything, but as a moment in American history it's undeniably pivotal. The Bush administration's securitization tactics are legendary now, and in many surprising ways the Obama administration has carried on Bush Jr.'s civil liberty-crushing legacy. The PATRIOT act is still in effect, we still use extrajudicial means to extract global terrorists, and as I write this review some bored intern is probably tracking every keystroke. These "preventative measures" against terrorism may seem tangential in a discussion about the working class, but there are noticeable threads tying together blue-collar folk with the upward stratification of executive power. As the US' terrible Gini ranking can attest, as the US government continues to wield power under the guise of protecting the populous, the richest Americans have only increased their influence, especially the ever-elusive Koch magnate. Free market acolytes will staunchly argue that economics doesn't always have to be a zero-sum game between the rich and those less fortunate, but the current economic climate is a good, if not argument against such thought.
As a result, the centuries-old struggles of coal miners becomes perfect when placed in this tumultuous 21st century context. People may not be dying in droves like the 18th century miners, but the abstract, universal struggles of the workers are still relevant in this day and age.
Plus, as far as voices go, Mattea's is one of the best for this subject material. Her voice has always had a rugged quality that suits the material of Calling Me Home and its predecessor, the similarly-themed Coal very well. Interestingly enough, however, Mattea's voice here is the smoothest it's been in awhile. In an unexpected turn, as her music as moved further away from the pop-tinged radio country of her '90's work toward favor more traditional, rustic folk and bluegrass, her voice has softened. (A similar progression can be seen in like-minded musician Mary Chapin Carpenter's work; her 2012 album Ashes and Roses is a long shot from songs like "He Thinks He'll Keep Her.") Make no mistake, though: her voice still has great power that conveys the hurt for those for whom she sings.
In many cases, an artist's attempt to "get back to her roots" can result in simplistic music that doesn't highlight her innovative qualities; such isn't the case with Calling Me Home. If anything, Mattea sounds more comfortable than she's been in a long time. The only real significant complaint with this album is that given how excellent Mattea's oeuvre is, this doesn't jump above the rest. For anyone who has tracked Mattea's career for a long time, this is of course a minor complaint. A good Kathy Mattea album is almost always great; making comparisons relative to her other material usually ends up a fickle exercise. An artist with a depth of experience like hers is very unlikely to make any missteps this late into a career, especially given Mattea's thoughtful pace in releasing records. (The most she's released in a decade is five.)
Though Calling Me Home is full of individually great tracks, it's best taken as a whole vision, or rather as a story. There are no specific characters, and the locales are broad, but it's easy to imagine living in the world Mattea sings of. But if there's one song worth singling out, it's "Hello, My Name is Coal", the strongest of all the songs. Despite its somewhat trite first-person perspective through the personification of coal, it nonetheless paints a poignant picture of a coal miner's life, for all the good and bad it brings. In a refreshing turn, Mattea doesn't hold back on showing the environmental implications of coal mining. Equally wise is her decision not to paint coal miners as money-grubbers who only care for fattening their wallets, though she is aware of how easy it is to be lured into the literal and metaphorical darkness of the practice. Her portrait of "black gold" ends up more negative than positive, but like any great storyteller she never forgets to humanize her characters.
Calling Me Home is thus another brilliant turn from Mattea that also benefits from an excellent political context. While there is reasonable concern in not wanting to turn all works of art into polemics, one way or another all art springs from a political situation. An artist as wise as Mattea, however, knows that political concerns don't have to give way to simplistic rhetoric or soapboxing. Instead, she knows that from our greatest struggles can come works of beauty.