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Matt Andersen - Coal Mining Blues

Busted Flat Records

12 tracks

I don’t know how many of you have ever been in a coal mine. Not the scorched earth looking strip mines that blighted our landscape in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. I’m talking about deep mining, hard coal mining. Mines run by hard working men who penetrated the earth to extract the finer and cleaner burning anthracite coal, the so-called hard coal that is so much in demand for industry and, in the older days, homes.

I took a cable car ride backwards down into a closed mine, several hundred feet beneath the surface of the earth. It was cold and damp, dark and closed. Odd, since I’d spent 20 years of my life serving in a steel tube under the sea. But this was different. Instead of being surrounded by a high tech machine operated by a highly capable crew, I was standing is a hole in the ground (that filled with water in some seasons if you went deep enough); one where the heat and dust from extracting coal from the earth killed many of the men who worked in them. Some who died went quickly, crushed by the occasional accident or collapse of tons of earth and rock. Most died slowly, their lungs filled with the black dust that turned their lungs a dark grey color and robbed them of their breath and their lives.

My family worked in the coal mining industry, both here in the US in North Eastern Pennsylvania and almost two centuries ago and earlier in Wales. If you think picking cotton in 110 degree heat can give you the blues, well, just think about how blue working in a mine would make you. Writing blues songs about mining is quite appropriate, and IBC winner Matt Andersen is a good one to do so. He is a giant of a man, a Nova Scotian who now lives in the mining community of Cape Breton and he is a blue collar sort of guy himself. His acoustic guitar playing and immense voice match the physical persona and he relates to the plight of the common man. In 1873, there were eight coal companies operating in Cape Breton. The miners were paid from 80 cents to $1.50 per day and boys were paid 65 cents and they are the men and boys Andersen commemorates in this CD.

The title track is a slow folk blues with nice accompaniment on piano, organ and horns and Matt’s guitar picks its’ way through quite nicely. The lyrics of song tell the lament filled story of the coal miners. It is a touching song. The CD opener is bouncy “Don’t Wanna Give In” where he sings and Amy Helm backs him up. His guitar and Collin Linden’s electric guitar blend well and John Sheard’s keyboards adds some nice solo and backup. Andersen sings of not giving in to a mundane life and political correctness. In “Fired Up” he takes a more country blues approach and Linden’s resonator with Andersen on electric guitar give this one a nice groove. “Lay It On The Line” gives us Andersen’s take on taking your shot when you get your chance. These first four songs open the CD and already I was sold on the strong songwriting and great musicianship.

“Baby I’ll Be” offers up a church like tome where Matt sings that he will be anything his baby will need. There is a thoughtful electric guitar solo that is restrained yet very impressive. He picks up the pace on “Make You Stay”, an acoustic number where it’s just he with the drummer keeping his beat. It’s a forceful cut where he sings of his passion and love for his baby; he really lets loose on vocals! “Home Sweet Home” slows it down again, where he takes us to church in a way. He sings that houses are only bricks and stones and a body only flesh and bones; the accordion backing him and Jonell Mosser (who back Matt vocally on this one) gives the track a sorrowful and traditional sound. Then on “Heartbreaker” Andersen lets his boogie out a bit as he sings about the women who broke his heart.

He reverts back to a slow tempo approach on “She Comes Down” where he sings of a relationship in separation and then reunion. Helm backs him here again and they are quite spiritual together and John Whynot’s organ blends in well with them. “Willie’s Diamond Joe” is stripped down, with Andersen on acoustic guitar and Linden on mandolin and harmonies. Another mournful song, Andersen really can write and perform with great emotion. They get back into a groove on “I Work Hard For the Luxury” where he sings that he works hard for his love and to touch his money’s heart. All of that is far more important than worldly goods and treasures. He closes with “Feel Like Going Home” where he sings in a gravelly tone about going home. Again a minimal approach is taken; it is just Sheard on piano and Matt singing on this one.

Others on the CD along with Matt that I have not yet mentioned include Geoff Arsenault on drums, Dennis Pendrith on bass, Quentin Ware and Jim Horn as the horn section, the McCreary Sisters and Some Handsome Fellers on backing vocals. A great group of musicians who make a great noise together!

I was really impressed with this CD. I’d known Andersen was highly regarded from winning the International Blues Challenge in 2010; I appreciate this opportunity to hear his work, understand where he comes from and appreciate his craft. The dozen tracks here (including 10 originals) are truly outstanding stuff. Folk and country blues done up in a moving manner, in both a bare bones and fully backed up mode. I highly recommend this CD to everyone who wants to hear a great man who is at the top of his game- the accolades he won in Memphis are quite well deserved!!!

Reviewer Steve Jones is secretary of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and work with their Blues In The Schools program.

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