More than a decade removed from her commercial peak, which found an uncommon balance between deservedly successful mainstream country hits and progressive cross-genre hybrids, Kathy Mattea ranks among many other veteran country artists who have embraced the artistic freedom afforded by going the indie route. What has kept Mattea's post-Nashville output so consistently interesting is the way that she has continued to experiment with the conventions of a roots-leaning country style, drawing heavily from her classic rock, R&B, and gospel influences. Her latest album, Coal, is something of a departure from recent form, then, in that it is far and away the most traditional recording of her career. But the album should in no way be mistaken for a sudden loss of nerve, as the hardline bluegrass and folk arrangements (courtesy of producer Marty Stuart, continuing his excellent run after producing Porter Wagoner's Wagonmaster) are perfectly suited to the material that Mattea has collected.
It's that material and Mattea's focus that make Coal her most ambitious work since 1991's Time Passes By. The granddaughter of two West Virginia coal miners, Mattea was inspired by the 2006 explosion and collapse at the Sago mine that left 12 miners dead, and she's recorded an album that is a testament to both the nearly unfathomable difficulty and the hard-won dignity of life as a miner. The most obvious point of comparison, especially since they share a cover of Darrell Scott's stunning "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive," is to Patty Loveless's landmark Mountain Soul. While Loveless's album stands as a broad, fully-realized sociological study of a region that's typically neglected or misunderstood, Mattea's album is more intensely focused on coal mining itself, and she explores this process and this lifestyle with the kind of gritty depth that, in and of itself, makes the album a marvel of structure.
Like Loveless, Mattea has the first-person familiarity with these stories necessary to bring a true interpretive voice to them. She's always been a wonderfully expressive vocalist, but her performances here represent the full breadth of her emotional range (how she conveys a sense of pride on "Blue Diamond Mine," even as the narrative suggests the kind of soul-crushing story that would typically breed resentment; her somber, matter-of-fact delivery of Merle Travis's "Dark as a Dungeon"; and the frustration of watching a loved one die that she brings to her stunning a capella rendition of Hazel Dickens's "Black Lung"), so it's not a stretch to say that she's never sounded better. These aren't easy songs to sing either: A line like "I used to think my daddy was a black man," on opener "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore," requires the kind of thoughtfulness that none of country's current A-list female vocalists could give it.
The strength of Mattea's performances only highlights one of the other keys to the album's success: the subtle differences in tone that keep these songs from becoming redundant. Where "Lawrence Jones" speaks to the violence and risks endemic to mining, the standout "Red-Winged Blackbird" addresses the same theme but infuses it with the darkest of gallows humor, reflecting the necessity of humor as a defense mechanism for those who descend into the mines. "L&N" captures the complicated guilt common to those who managed to make it out of the region, while "Harlan" pinpoints the source of that guilt in unflinching detail. What ultimately makes Coal such a powerful piece of work is that Mattea approaches these dramatic, compelling stories and the real people they represent with respect and even humility, and it is easily one of both Mattea's and 2008's best albums.