Poets have long understood the metaphorical power of music to move mountains, but Mark Utley hopes his new compilation album, Music From the Mountains, has the literal power to stop mountains from moving.
Years ago, major coal mining operations abandoned shaft mining and embraced strip mining and mountaintop removal (or MTR), where Appalachian hilltops are leveled with huge quantities of explosives and coal is sifted from the rubble. Opponents of MTR say the process results in the loss of deep mining jobs; lowland floods due to vegetation loss and massive rainwater runoff; the deaths of hundreds of residents whose wells were poisoned by the process’ chemical byproducts; the literal destruction of homes from flying debris; and a genocidal assault on the Appalachian culture.
When Utley first heard about MTR, the frontman for local Americana ensemble Magnolia Mountain was hesitant about increasing his knowledge on the subject.
“As soon as I was aware of it, part of me didn’t want to know anymore,” Utley says over beers at the Northside Tavern, where he organized a small 2009 benefit for Ohio Citizens Action and their fight against MTR. “But I knew I was going to know more.”
Much of Utley’s MTR information came through Magnolia Mountain vocalist Melissa English, whose daytime gig as the Executive Director of OCA-Cincinnati afforded her the opportunity to observe MTR’s effects personally.
“Appalachian people have a strong connection to place, and they want to be left alone,” English says. “The coal industry has made terrible inroads into people’s daily lives. I saw a picture of a giant boulder that crashed into somebody’s house. ‘Tough luck, your house has been destroyed.’ ”
Utley realized he could accomplish little to raise MTR awareness on his own, but he knew the power of musicians to reach their fans. Thus was born Music For the Mountains, a 21-track album featuring local, regional and national artists who have contributed covers and specifically written or unintentionally appropriate songs, all previously unavailable.
“After the benefit, I talked to Melissa and said, ‘What can we do now?’ ” Utley says. “There weren’t any easy answers, so it went on the back burner. Time passed and I started thinking, ‘Maybe we can make it bigger and involve more people,’ and it just snowballed from there.”
Utley took the album project a step further, proposing a fund-raising concert to further inspire the public to join the cause of ending MTR. That part of the plan coalesces with a two-day weekend event at the University of Cincinnati and the Southgate House to benefit Ohio Citizens Action and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
Many of the tracks specifically written for Music For the Mountains deal directly with MTR’s tragic aftermath, from the death of loved ones to the forced emigration of Appalachians from land occupied by their families for generations. There are also joyful songs about the region’s beauty and the singular nature of mountain life.
“It kept it from being this big downer,” Utley says of the more celebratory songs.
“You need to tell people what you’re fighting against,” English says.
Music For the Mountains presents both perspectives from a veritable who’s who of local talent, including Magnolia Mountain, MM offshoot Shiny and the Spoon, Kim Taylor, The Tillers (collectively and individually), The Hiders, Wussy’s Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker, David Rhodes Brown and many others.
“I’ve bought well-intentioned benefit albums, got two songs into it and never listened to it again,” Utley says. “I wanted something good enough that you would buy it whether you gave a rat’s ass about MTR or not, and if you did, that’s a bonus. If you tell people about (MTR), most reasonable people will be outraged and willing to pitch in. I know a lot of musicians, so I floated this idea. I don’t think anybody turned me down.”
Friday night’s activities begin with a screening of excerpts from the films Coal Country and Low Coal at UC’s MainStreet Cinema and a brief presentation by their creator, Mari-Lynn Evans, followed by short sets from a stripped-down Magnolia Mountain, Shiny and the Spoon and The Tillers’ Mike Oberst and Sean Geil.
“It’s been up to grassroots activists to tell their stories, see MTR firsthand or through a film and get involved,” Evans says. “This is no different than the civil rights movement. It’s getting the message out at the grassroots level because there’s just not the political will to stop doing this. There will be if enough people make their voices heard.”
Saturday’s Southgate House concert — the only place where the CD will be available — features most of the album’s contributing artists (Jake Speed and the Freddies and The Frankl Project, both cut from the album at the last minute, will also perform). In addition to Music For the Mountains, three prints from Northern Kentucky artist Keith Neltner will be available for sale, with proceeds split between OCA and KFTC.
For those questioning OCA’s involvement in this effort, English offers a potent response.
“MTR doesn’t happen here, but we burn coal in Ohio, and some of it is MTR coal,” she says emphatically. “We’re creating demand, so we’re all responsible. And the headwaters of the Ohio River are in these areas of West Virginia and Kentucky (where MTR is used); this stuff is affecting our water supply.”
“There’s the old tree-hugger cliché of ‘We all live downstream,’ ” says Utley. “It’s a cliché because it contains truth.”
Author Jeff Biggers, who will appear Saturday night to discuss MTR and suggestions for its elimination, has written extensively about Appalachia in general and MTR in particular in his books The United States of Appalachia and Reckoning at Eagle Creek. He’s adamant that the eradication of MTR lies in publicizing its astonishingly negative effects.
“Our feeling is that we have big coal on the ropes now, especially about MTR, and now we have to redouble our efforts to abolish it once and for all,” Biggers says. “MTR only yields about 8 percent of the nation’s coal. This is the year we’re going to end MTR. That’s been my refrain around the country.”
As exposure grows — 2010’s Dear Companion on Sub Pop Records was Kentucky musicians Daniel Martin Moore and Ben Sollee’s MTR protest and KFTC fund-raiser — grassroots action stands as the most effective means to MTR’s end. The best resources for activist information (everyone quoted here mentioned the importance of demanding support from your legislators for the Appalachian Restoration Act and the Clean Water Protection Act) can be found at www.ilovemountains.org, www.mountainjustice.org, www.appvoices.org and www.endmtr.com.
“Appalachians committed no crime other than living someplace where greedy bastards wanted to take over,” Utley says. “They died because they shared the well that was contaminated by the groundwater. This area is a part of people, it’s destroyed and left in an unclaimable state and the people that (use MTR mining) just leave, they don’t care. The only place this happens is in the Appalachians. If they tried to do this in the Rockies or the Sierras out west, people’s heads would explode.”
Biggers brings the issue home, citing Cincinnati’s longstanding role as an agent for cultural change.
“Over the past 200 years, virtually all movements for progressive social change have come out of the mountains, from turning the tide of the American Revolution to the anti-slavery movement to the labor movement,” Biggers says. “And Cincinnati has a huge role in that, because so much of our migration went into your city. MTR is a human rights issue. People need to open up their wallets and support the people on the front lines. I think that’s what this concert is about; you can hear a lot of great music and have a great time but you can open up your hearts and wallets. We’re all connected to this really egregious crime. We all have to help out.”
The MUSIC FOR THE MOUNTAINS benefits start Friday at UC’s MainStreet Cinema (in the Tangeman University Center) with film screenings and musical performances. Saturday’s main event at the Southgate House features nearly 20 acts. For advanced tickets and the full lineup, visit www.southgatehouse.com. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.