Two years ago, regional Folk phenoms Daniel Martin Moore and Ben Sollee met at a Lexington 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 Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and an active fundraiser — so they were determined to do something concrete and creative to shed light on the subject.
“We’d both been working on material and thinking about doing some kind of project and it just kind of evolved,” says Moore, who is based out of Cold Spring. “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 and released by Moore’s regular label home, Sub Pop Records), is an evocation of Appalachian mountain music and a culture that's 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's also incredibly toxic to the environment.
“It’s the most aggressive kind of surface mining,” Moore says. “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, (not to) mention the health of the environment.”
(For more background on MTR, see the recent CityBeat article "Blowing Their Tops.")
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, moving 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,” Moore says. “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.”
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 My Morning Jacket's 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. (James) 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, as MTR is an issue close to James’ heart as well. But James’ most important contribution was in convincing Sollee and Moore that they should expand their concept.
“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?’ ” Moore says 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.”
Part of Dear Companion’s 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,” Moore says. “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.”
BEN SOLLEE AND DANIEL MARTIN MOORE (with drummer Dan Dorff and violinist Cheyenne Mize) play Shake It Records Feb. 19 at 6 p.m., followed by a CD release show at Northside Tavern. Get details for the free show at NT here.