- Music, Place, and Identity in the Central Appalachian Mountaintop Removal Mining Debate
Set in contemporary southern West Virginia, Ann Pancake's 2007 novel Strange as This Weather Has Been tells the stories of a West Virginian family that lives downstream from a massive mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mine. Like many families throughout the region, the Ricker family has lived in the same area for generations and has witnessed the ongoing cycles of boom and bust that accompany life in the coalfields. Living where the local stream bears their family name, the Rickers feel profound emotional connections to a surrounding landscape that serves as a constant reminder of their family history and their religious beliefs. Yet, the deployment of MTR on the nearby ridges fundamentally changes the local landscape and soundscape, transforming ridges into flat land and replacing the sounds of the surrounding Appalachian mixed mesophytic forests with those of sirens, blasting, and heavy equipment. As Uncle Mogey, one of the eldest Rickers, recounts, these new sounds combined with the dramatic physical transformations of surrounding lands to de-familiarize his homeplace, resulting in ongoing headaches and strange dreams featuring "animals with metal for teeth" and the sound of "an alarm going off, a horn with a beat to it: Mwaaa. Mwaaa. Mwaaa. Mwaaa."1
MTR is a surface-mining practice used to obtain coal located in seams situated near the tops of mountain peaks and ridges. Considered to be a cheaper, more practical, and higher-yielding alternative to deep mining, [End Page 1] MTR was first practiced in the coalfields of the Central Appalachian Coal Region (CACR) in the 1960s. In 1977, Congress regulated all surface mining, including MTR, with the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), which required that mining companies work to return surface-mined lands to their premining state, and the Clean Water Act, which placed strict limits on the amount of particulate matter that mining companies could release into streams and other waterways.2 These regulations slowed the expansion of MTR in the 1980s, but the passage of a 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act, which sought to reduce acid rain by encouraging the use of low-sulfur coal (found in abundance in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky), has led to the increased use of MTR techniques throughout central Appalachia in the past two decades.3
In the past decade, MTR has come under increasing scrutiny in central Appalachian coalfield communities and in the broader debate about the United States' energy policy.4 Centering on complex economic, environmental, and social issues, the MTR debate has unfolded in public debates, rallies, essay collections, documentary films, television series, and, most important for the purposes of this study, music. Music figures prominently in rallies organized by groups on both sides of the debate, and a wide variety of regionally and nationally known musicians representing diverse political perspectives and musical approaches have contributed to benefit concerts, film soundtracks, and albums in order to garner support for anti-MTR causes and to mobilize coal supporters in counterprotest.
This essay works to unpack the role that music and musicalized rhetoric have played in shaping public debate about the impact of MTR mining, a practice that eclipsed traditional deep mining and less invasive surface-mining practices in the early 1990s. Specifically, I seek to understand how music composed and performed by proponents and opponents of mountaintop removal invoke a variety of senses of place to articulate key strategic stances, to generate political capital, and to empower coalfield residents in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. My work on this subject lies at the intersections of musicology, cultural geography, and ecocriticism, intersections that have only recently begun to receive the attention they deserve in musicological studies, most notably in the recent and ongoing development of ecomusicological approaches in the work of Alexander Rehding, Mitchell Morris, Brooks Toliver, Denise Von Glahn, and others. Ecomusicology suggests that, much like language and the visual arts, music is simultaneously influenced by nature and a catalyst for new conceptions of it.5
Particularly instructive to this study is Nancy Guy's work on musical representations of Taiwan's Tamsui River...