By Mona Seghatoleslami WEST VIRGINIA PUBLIC BROADCASTING : November 24, 2009 · The controversial documentary Coal Country now has a musical companion, the CD Coal Country Music. It includes performances by Willie Nelson, Ralph Stanley, Natalie Merchant, and John Prine.
Sales of the CD will benefit the Alliance for Appalachia, an organization working to end mountaintop removal coal mining.
Coal Country Music brings together a variety of songs, written and recorded in different times and places, all into one album.
The album didn’t start out as part of the Coal Country project. Andy Mahler of Paoli, Indiana got connected to the issue through his involvement with forest preservation.
“When we would travel to West Virginia to meet with and work with our friends over there to try to get greater degree of protection for the forests in West Virginia, we started hearing about something called mountaintop removal,” said Mahler.
One of the people that Mahler told about what he learned in West Virginia was Jason Wilber, a singer-songwriter who also plays guitar with John Prine. Wilbur became interested in the mountaintop removal coal mining and addressing his concerns with the practice through music.
“We were just talking about ways that we could use music to help with an environmental issue. He told me about mountaintop removal, which I wasn’t aware of before that, and it seemed like the Appalachians play such a big role of the development of the music in this country, so it seemed like a good idea to use music to help the Appalachians,” Wilber said.
From there, they started looking for songs and getting the rights to use them.
At the same time, filmmakers Phylis Geller and Mari-Lynn Evans were thinking about a companion CD for their documentary Coal Country. When they met Andy Mahler at a conference and heard about the album he was planning with Jason Wilber, it made sense to combine their projects.
The documentary and the album work together, but they still have separate aims.
“Now I do agree that the film does as good of a job as any film I’ve seen of trying to portray all sides of the issue, because it is a complex issue, but we do not feel that there are two sides to the mountaintop removal issue,” Wilber said. “The purpose of the film is to tell the story; the purpose of the CD is to raise money to stop mountaintop removal.”
In addition to producing the album, Jason Wilber added one of his own songs to the project, “In Her Veins.”
“That’s a song that I wrote for my wife. It’s kind of about her, and it’s also about playing music and about being drawn back and forth between being home with her and being out playing music,” Wilber said.
“As I was thinking about what songs of my own might be good for this project, I thought about that one and thought about veins of coal. Then it occurred to me, that sort of duality of attraction to something is what we have with coal right now. In that, we need it in a sense, because we get about half of the electricity in our country from coal, but at the same time we have to recognize that it’s not a good source, because it has so many drawbacks that we really need to replace it,” said Wilber.
Wilbur and Mahler hope that the variety of well-known artists will attract more attention to the issue and that music will reach people in a different way.
The CD is out now, but Mahler feels that their work is far from over.
“My feeling about this project is that, well, we won’t quit until they do,” said Mahler. “I do feel that the solutions will have to be inclusive, rather than won by force, but the reality is that we’ve got to stop mountaintop removal.”