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I’ve never been one to gush in the presence of celebrity. I’ve always felt that famous people were just more talented, or perhaps luckier, versions of ourselves. That was before the Kardashians. Now I don’t have any idea who and/or what famous people are.

I met Kathy Mattea about three years ago through Teri’s work as a deluxe spokeswoman for social justice and environmental protection in Appalachia. Not being a country music fan, I knew I’d heard her name but I knew nothing of her music.  From the first meeting I found her not just approachable but genuinely warm and sincere. Over the last few years I’ve seen her few more times and I’ve figured out that she’s not only a fabulous singer but also a brilliant and captivating public speaker. I’m sure she’s suffered some criticism for her outspoken advocacy for justice for Appalachia, for everybody in Appalachia, which includes some frank but very fair criticism of the coal industry. West Virginians are apparently not supposed to criticize the coal industry.

We ran into Kathy again yesterday in Blair, West Virginia where she and Teri both spoke at the rally before final day of the March on Blair Mountain. We chatted in the “green room,” which in this case was a tarp suspended on poles in the middle of a obscenely hot, uncomfortably dry field, no furniture, not even any grass. It was mid-day and the sun beat down from a nearly cloudless sky. Even my fingernails were sweating.

From the Left: Landra Lewis, Kathy Mattea, Teri Blanton at Blair, WV (©2011 by Richard X. Moore)

Kathy spoke last, walking up to a microphone on a mound of earth in the middle of this field, flanked by a couple of speakers. It was probably pushing one o’clock, maybe even later, and the sound equipment has been baking in the sun for long enough that it would overheat and blow a fuse every few minutes, requiring a brief cool-down before working again.

Kathy gave a brief but typically enthralling speech and picked up her guitar to sing Black Water, an anti-strip mining song by Jean Richie that never fails to excite people every time I’ve heard her perform it.

I can’t think of very many two-time Grammy winners who would be performing in a location like this, let alone under these climatic and technological conditions, but Kathy performed just as if she were on stage in a beautiful theater (like the Kentucky Theater in Lexington, where I saw her perform this same song a couple years ago). Of course, the sound system failed. More than once. Kathy just took to singing through a bullhorn until it started working again, never showing any sign of frustration, never missing a beat.

Kathy Mattea Goes Low-Tech: Blair, WV (©2011 by Richard X. Moore)

This is why I love Kathy Mattea. She’s enormously talented and highly successful yet she manages to remain one of us. I’m still not a country music fan and probably never will be, but I think Kathy’s album Coal is brilliant and would have resulted in her third Grammy in 2009 had she not been robbed by Pete Seeger. We should all go directly to her website and buy a copy.

Thank you again, Kathy.


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