"I've never really thought of myself as an activist," Kathy Mattea says at the beginning of our interview. You can hear the melody in Mattea's slightly gravelly voice as she talks, sounding as down to earth as you or I, not like the winner of multiple Grammy awards with a bevy of top 10 hits on the country music charts.
Although she was one of the first country music stars to champion the fight against HIV/AIDS, Mattea says her interest in social justice was always just something that was just there, not at the forefront of her life.
And then, one day in 2006, that all changed.
On Jan. 2 of that year, 13 coal miners became trapped in the Sago Mine in West Virginia after an explosion. Early news reports said the men had survived the blast, but two days later, only one man was pulled out alive.
"I was absolutely crushed by this," Mattea says now. "Both my grandfathers were coal miners, but my dad got out. So I never thought of it as my story, it was my parents' story. But this just hit me—I would be driving down the street in the middle of the day and just burst into tears."
Mattea was asked to sing at the television broadcast of the miners' funeral, and from that song came the inspiration for her 2008 album, Coal, which she describes as "a history of coal-mining in music."
"Suddenly I looked up and everything I was becoming aware of had to do with coal," Mattea says.
As Mattea's awareness grew, she became increasingly disturbed by the coal-mining practice commonly known as mountaintop-removal mining, or MTR, in which the top part of a mountain is blown off in order to get at the coal underneath.
A West Virginia native, Mattea says she spent her childhood exploring every corner of the state—the caves, the trails, the mountains, the rivers.
"You can't teach me to love this place growing up and then expect me to keep my mouth shut at the damage that is happening," she says. "People's lives are being destroyed."
Mattea cites the environmental side effects of MTR mining. Cancer clusters and birth defects have been found in some communities near the mines (although mine owners deny any connection), and many homes have no access to drinkable water.
"If my water isn't safe to drink, why would I want to bathe my children in it?" Mattea posits.
But Mattea is careful to point out she doesn't want to vilify the coal companies, and she understands the difficult economics involved—if MTR mining is banned, jobs will be lost.
"It's just a tragedy no matter how you slice it," she says. "There are very real lives being touched on both sides. I think the question is, how do we have these discussions without beating each other up verbally? … It's what music does in a really beautiful way."
Mattea's new-found activism heavily influenced her most recent album, but she says her new work—an album halfway done—is the missing link between the folk influences in her country songs.
"It's sort of a love letter to Appalachia, my next album," Mattea says.
She adds that she feel fortunate that she didn't discover Appalachian music until later in her life.
"My voice carries more gravitas now," she says. "At 20 I would have sounded too innocent singing these songs."
Mattea will be in Knoxville on Sunday to perform a special one-night only, Knoxville-only show, A View From the Mountaintop, with author and environmental activist Barbara Kingsolver. The performance is sponsored by the nonprofit Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship, or LEAF.
Mattea says she and Kingsolver have been working on the show for months, although they've still never met in person. "It's like a blind date," Mattea says, adding that she feels she and Kingsolver are kindred spirits.
As for the show itself, it will alternate between Mattea playing songs and Kingsolver reading material. "We want to take the audience on a journey," Mattea says. "I've been moved to tears more than once by the material Barbara has read to me. One of the highlights of my life is to get to do this."