Saving Appalachia from mining one song at a time

Brian Baker, February 2010

Daniel Martin Moore and Ben Sollee have each made a significant impact on the folk/bluegrass scene over the past few years. Sollee is a classically trained cellist and a member of Abigail Washburn's Sparrow Quartet, and his acclaimed 2008 solo debut, "Learning to Bend," was an amazing blend of bluegrass, folk and jazz. Moore returned from a Peace Corps stint three years ago and sent an unsolicited demo of his Nick Drake-like songs to Sub Pop; against all odds, they signed Moore immediately and set him to work on his first album, 2008's "Stray Age."

Two years ago, Moore and Sollee met at a Lexington, Ky. show and began making small talk about music and their commonalities when the subject of Appalachian strip mining was broached. It was a subject that both Kentuckians are passionate about - Moore is a member of anti-strip mining group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and an active fundraiser - and so they were determined to do something concrete and creative to shed light on the subject.

"We were chatting about mountaintop removal and talking about music and that sort of thing," says Moore. "We'd both been working on material and thinking about doing some kind of project, and it just kind of evolved. We ended up playing a show together; I opened a show for him in Lexington, and the next day, we went down to Knoxville and did a show. It was a positive experience all around, so we talked about doing some recording, maybe an EP, and it turned into a record."

That record, "Dear Companion" (produced by My Morning Jacket's Jim James), is an evocation of Appalachian mountain music and a culture that is slowly being eroded by progress and technology. The aforementioned mining process of mountaintop removal (MTR) is among the more destructive forces having an impact on rural Appalachia. MTR is a coal mining option where the ground above a coal seam is charged, detonated and removed to expose the seam, avoiding the costlier method of deep shaft mining. It is also incredibly toxic to the environment.

"It's the most aggressive kind of surface mining," says Moore. "They remove every bit of the mountain above the coal seam. It varies in depth, but sometimes it can be 500-600 feet of the mountain detonated and pushed into the valley. There are all kinds of issues that crop up from that, the biggest being pollution. In every valley, there's a stream, and that pollutes the surface water, the groundwater and causes all sorts of health problems for the people around it, and that doesn't mention the health of the environment."

The direct consequences of MTR are physical contamination and the ever-present threat of floods from the poisonous slurry ponds, the by-product of the mining operation. The more subtle danger is in the dismantling of Appalachian society as families grow weary of the lessened quality of life from pollution and jobs lost due to MTR and move away from areas where they've lived their entire lives.

Relating these issues to the region's musical heritage in ways both subtle and direct is at the heart of Sollee and Moore's work on "Dear Companion."

Flyrock Blues is a pretty straightforward song," says Moore. "Flyrock is a term used on mine sites during big explosions for the stuff that goes shooting through the air. Sometimes it ends up down in the hollers where people live, and it ends up in people's homes and destroys property, and it's killed people before."

Part of the awareness that Moore and Sollee hope to raise is by enlightening people to the complicity that many of us share in supporting the practice without knowing it. "If people stopped buying coal, then they wouldn't have to blow up mountains to get to it," says Moore. "It's all about the culture we all contribute to. In Kentucky and Ohio and all of Appalachia, most of our electricity comes from the burning of coal. Every time we consume electricity, we are contributing to the destruction of that place. We're all doing it, it's not just some big, bad company that's doing this. We're all contributing to this problem, and we all need to figure out together how to do it if we want it fixed."

MTR and its rippling effects rarely get any media exposure because it's a less than sexy news story ("You say ‘Exxon Valdez,' and everyone knows what you're talking about," Moore notes), so any kind of heightened attention is helpful. "Dear Companion" is just such a high profile event, but having James attached to the project gives it an even greater cachet. "I know, it's very true," says Moore. "And to be frank, it's something we were all very aware of. He believes in the project and he believes in the goal. It's about getting the word out. He realized that his involvement would bring more attention to it."

When Moore and Sollee first contemplated doing an EP, they discussed bringing in outside musicians to elevate the proceedings, and Sollee suggested James, who he was long acquainted with in the Louisville scene, as producer.

It was a natural fit; MTR is an issue close to James' heart as well. But perhaps James' most important contribution was in convincing Sollee and Moore that they should expand their concept and take it to its most logical conclusion. "We had six songs done, and we were having a cup of tea on the last night, and Jim looked over and said, ‘So do you guys want this to come out and really connect with people and really matter to them and have it be something they cherish over time or do you want them to just forget about it?' " says Moore with a laugh. "And we were like, ‘Uh...A). First choice, right?' And he said, ‘Then we need to make this a full-length album. Nobody remembers EPs. What's your favorite EP?' We each had a few other tunes and we wrote ‘Dear Companion' after the first session and ‘Needn't Say a Thing' came later, after the first half of the record. Poof, it turned into an album."

Beyond the worthwhile focus of the album, "Dear Companion" is a gorgeous album of folk-touched mountain music that is as powerful and haunting as it is enlightening. From the propulsive title track and Something, Somewhere, Sometime to the gently scathing My Wealth Comes to Me to the folksy lope of Only a Song, Sollee's sonorous cello and Martin's fluid guitar combine with a talented supporting musical cast and James' expertise behind the glass to craft the rarest of projects; an album that delivers a critically important message in a most beautiful package.

Part of the proceeds will benefit Appalachian Voices, an advocacy group working to stop MTR. Moore is confident that, with the right exposure, the proper end will be achieved. "Once people get the whole scope - and especially if they've visited an MTR site; five or six square miles of devastation - awareness will ultimately turn the tide," says Moore. "Appalachian Voices runs a web site called ilovemountains.org, and that's the most succinct resource for raising awareness about MTR. We've partnered with them, and they're helping us with logistics and making sure we're not flying off the handle and saying something silly."

There is a wonderfully compelling line in the brief liner notes that accompany "Dear Companion": "We all live downstream." It is an eloquent reference to the delicate web of life that connects us all. With "Dear Companion," Daniel Martin Moore and Ben Sollee remind us of the tremulous value of that web in Appalachia and the crucial importance of saving it for future generations.



© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com