When I think of coal mining Loretta Lynn’s biographical lyrics come to mind ”When I was born a coal miner’s daughter, In a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler, We were poor but we had love, That’s the one thing that daddy made sure of, He shoveled coal to make a poor man’s dollar.”
Butcher Holler is a few hours from Harlan County, the subject of Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentary “Harlan County U.S.A.” I was asked recently what my favorite documentary is and that’s it. Well, at least it is the first that came to mind and I have yet to think of another I admire as much. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” is one of my all time favorite films. Of course, that has a lot to do with my love of Loretta Lynn’s music. Her albums found equal time on my father’s record-player with those of Alabama and John Denver. In time I had a CD box set of her Greatest Hits, and though I went through a pop phase for a while, it is country music I always come home to..it’s real. My life boils down to all those suburban days of my childhood in Northern Virginia, the nothing special about this place feeling that let my imagination run wild for adventures like those my father told me of when he was a boy in Arkansas, and the summers in Arkansas with his sister’s family where I felt so alive.
In Arkansas people dressed for church on Sunday, had groups of friends over for dinner parties (the kind where men went to one end of the house to talk rifles and the women the other to gossip and talk food and craft projects), made a big deal out of the Fourth of July with a parade and fireworks, handmade quilts, stitched, cooked from scratch (okay, my father did that and he was an amazing home cook)…everyone knew someone on the rodeo circuit, someone in the military and someone with a cabin on a lake where the fishing could be good, shopping mall Chinese restaurants were glamourous, young girls got their ears pierced and wore cowboy boots, and life was right there alongside a great big historic house or a new development.
Alright, I’m supposed to be writing about coal mining, isn’t that what the subject reads? Here it is…country music stood for a life in a place I loved and respected. Country music is about who stole your man, woman, or dog, the bank reclaiming your home, drought, farmland up for auction, tractors for sale, cold beers after work, family, and friendship. It is about hard work, making opportunities for yourself, and taking care of the people you love. Maybe Elvis was a bit more on the dramatic side and Johnny Cash focused on the railroad and prison, but they lived it or knew enough about the life to sing like they did. I’ve never been to a coal mine, don’t know any coal miners, am near horrified by the environmental problems related to the industry, and cannot imagine how the coal miners endure their working conditions (dark, filthy, and dangerous). I am attracted to “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Harlan County,” because they are about hardworking Americans…manly men (where are those anymore??) and stand by their man women just about right in your backyard struggling to provide shelter and put food on the table for their families. These folks are not living the advertised American Dream, they do not generally drive new cars, shop at Whole Foods, schedule spa appointments, or buy new clothes for a night on the town. I don’t know what defines the American Dream, if this is even up to the individual or the masses. Please don’t think for one second I don’t know that every year young people leave coal mining communities and head to university, and the ever bright lights of a larger city…or those same young people choose to stay out of respect and pride for what their family and neighbors do.
We hear about the hazards a few times a year, environmental and human, but we don’t hear about the coal miners lives at home and in the mines almost ever. Spike TV and Original Productions, whose other series include “Ice Road Truckers” and “Deadliest Catch” are changing all that this Wednesday, March 30th at 10PM/9c with the premiere of “Coal: The Danger Runs Deep” the 10 episode, one-hour series about miners at the Westchester Coal Mine in McDowell County, W.Va.
The series explores coal mining through the eyes of Mike Crowder and Tom Roberts, part-owners of Cobalt Mine in Westchester, West Virginia, and the area’s hard-working miners, families and community members. Crowder and Roberts are loyal family men and they require the support of their loved ones to tackle the daily demands of the mine. Tom’s commitment to the job is reflected in a mining career that’s spanned more than 45 years. He has seen his share of accidents and knows that any mistake can bring disaster.
I visited the series website and after about 15 minutes I became hooked. This is about the best television since well “Justified” premiered last year…another show (this one fictional) in which the main character is a U.S. Marshall from Harlan County , Kentucky….see the pattern here? Seriously, I kept watching the preview and could not believe what I was seeing, could not believe the access, the personalities (their relationships, what they have to say), and the fact that my claustrophobia was not setting in. I just wanted them to be okay, to get out of the mine, to make money, to hug their wives and children and see blue sky. Let’s face it coal mining makes for excellent storytelling.
Top photo Universal Pictures. Middle photos Spike TV. Bottom photo (West Virginia coal mining country) by Anthony Sau (who, for the record I tried unsuccessfully to contact).