Music

Various Artists: Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner's Struggle

They have the plan, but we have the power.


Various Artists

Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner’s Struggle

Label: Rounder
US Release Date: 2006-05-23
UK Release Date: Available as import
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For many of us, it's easy to take for granted the privileges and rights our jobs afford us. Laws, human resources departments, and unions all protect the worker from potentially egregious actions by our bosses or coworkers. Ideally, the rights attained for the modern worker value life and labor with equal measure, ensuring proper compensation and conditions in which we can fully contribute to society.

The coal miner's struggle for equitable treatment is not just a story of one industry's fight for humane conditions or the integral role it played in the development of unions. It is also the story of its influence on parallel movements, including civil and women's rights. Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner's Struggle is more than just a soundtrack to the 1976 Academy Award winning film (freshly released on DVD by the Criterion Collection). It is an exhaustive collection of songs that capture the anger, fear, desperation, and conviction of the miner's fight not only by musicians, but by the people on the front line's themselves.

For this 22-song collection, Rounder has gone into the archives and complemented the songs that appear in Barbara Kopple's film with tracks from two earlier, out-of-print compilations: Come All You Coal Miners and They'll Never Keep Us Down: Women's Coal Mining Songs. What emerges is a stirring portrait of protest capturing the views of labor organizers, workers, and their families.

Given the subject matter, it's no surprise the legendary Hazel Dickens appears no less than seven times on the disc. Born into a coal mining family, Dickens' untrained voice and clear-eyed perspective add extra poignancy to her songs. Whether singing about the dreaded black lung ("Black Lung") or detailing the murder of a labor organizer ("The Yablonski Murder"), Dickens' readings are passionate and evocative. Though polished with a bit more of a professional sheen, and delivered with a honey-soaked voice, Merle Travis' "Dark as a Dungeon" is still remarkably devastating. With nothing more than an acoustic guitar and his voice, Travis sings unflinchingly of a day in the life of miner, working underground, never seeing the light of day, and whose life is in constant danger of being snuffed out. It's easy to see how Travis' sympathetic recounting of the life of the working man would later influence "outlaw" artists such as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. What is palpable in all these performers is the authenticity of the songs, written and delivered from a place of honest concern.

While the songs by professional musicians are certainly effective, it's the tracks by the actual workers and organizers themselves that are the most haunting. Sarah Ogan Gunning, the daughter of a miner's rights activist, was a protester first and artist second. She would appear at various rallies and events with her half-sister, and using the framework of traditional folk songs, sing passionate protest songs or simply convey the difficult life of the miner. "Come All You Coal Miners" and "Hard Working Miner", recorded Alan Lomax-style presumably in her home (during the former track you hear someone coughing the background), capture the raw emotion from someone who has been on the front lines. Though it may be grim, there is an undercurrent of conviction and hope in Gunning's slightly wavering voice that resonates clearly. However, Florence Reece's "Which Side Are You On?" is simply the most inspiring song on the entire disc. The wife of a union organizer, Reece wrote this song in the early 1930s to the melody of the traditional tune "Lay the Lily Low". The song has since been discovered by folk musicians, but this recording by Reece, decades after she wrote it, is no less powerful for the age. Her clearly elderly, weak, and unaccompanied voice still achingly urges workers to unite for a common cause.

Protest music has come back of late, attaining a certain vogue among contemporary musicians. No doubt, it's a surefire way to create press. One has to wonder if Green Day would've conquered the music charts as effectively if their videos and music were stripped of their political posturing. And unfortunately, that's what much of what passes for modern protest songs amount to: millionaire musicians taking up the image of "concerned citizen" while riding the press, carefully staged photo shoots, and radio play all the way to the bank. Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner's Struggle is a sobering reminder of what real protest music is. Unprotected by agents and record deals, these are truly the voices of the people, singing and yearning for a better life for their families, colleagues, and ultimately, people everywhere.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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