Big Kenny Blasts Music on the Mountaintop

Leading NRDC's campaign to end mountaintop removal coal mining often takes me to Appalachia -- to investigate and document the destruction, to meet and strategize with grassroots allies and, most recently, to film a music video.

Yes, it was as surreal as it sounds.  As part of our Music Saves Mountains initiative, Big Kenny (of the country duo Big & Rich) wanted to shoot mountaintop removal footage for the video of his new song "Wake Up", which was inspired by the issue.  Kenny -- who considers himself a "country boy from Culpeper, Virginia" -- is passionate about keeping the 'country' in country music by lending his voice to the fight to end mountaintop mining.  With his help and that of a growing cadre of performers -- including Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow and Dave Matthews -- Music Saves Mountains is about tapping the music community to use its influence and visibility to save America’s oldest mountains, which have inspired musicians for generations.

So when Kenny said he wanted to highlight the issue in a video, I arranged to meet up with him last week in Charleston, West Virginia for a flyover and a trek up to Larry Gibson's property on Kayford Mountain, which is surrounded by mining moonscapes on all sides...for as far as the eye can see.  Larry is the self-proclaimed Keeper of the Mountains -- a well-deserved title, to be sure.  Indeed, thanks to his unwavering love of the land that has been in his family for generations, Kayford has not fallen into the clutches of mining companies that desperately seek the coal under its peak.  As a result, Larry owns a last-remaining patch of mountain paradise located in the midst of strip mining hell.  Kayford likely is the most recognized symbol of Appalachia's heartbreak at the hands of rapacious mining, which has flattened hundreds of majestic mountaintops, wiped out vast forests, obliterated or irreparably polluted valley streams, and laid waste to countless coalfield communities.  Because Kayford Mountain is one of the best places to view the world's worst coal mining, it served as the perfect location for the video shoot.

What follows is a series of photographs taken on the day, as well as some video footage of Kenny in action.  The actual spot on which the video shoot took place is a craggy perch on the edge of Larry's property that overlooks the hellscape of an active mountaintop mining site operated by Massey Energy, the country's fourth-largest coal company.  I learned later from Larry that the day after our visit, mine workers defiantly planted a Massey flag on the ledge where we stood -- along with a rope tied with a hangman's noose. 

(L-R: Larry Gibson, me and Big Kenny before heading up to the mountain.  Photo courtesy of Garrett Miller)

(Kenny in Larry's truck, heading up to Kayford.  Photo by Garrett Miller)

Here's the view from Kayford looking down on the valley.  Just out of sight, off to the right, is the massive mountaintop mine that looms over the community nestled in the "holler" below.

(Photo by Garrett Miller)

The rest of the photos here were taken by me or with my camera. Here's the mostly panoramic view from Larry's mountain, which actually used to be much lower than the surrounding peaks that have since been leveled.

Check out the size of these massive earth movers, used to transport the blasted "overburden" (tons of dirt, rock, debris) to the edge of the mountain and dump it into the adjacent valley, burying creeks and rivers below.  (Look familiar?  The same type of vehicles were featured in the opening scenes of Avatar.)

OK, I couldn't resist this shot -- it's a discarded Tonka toy left behind on Larry's property by one of his relative's kids.

I talk up the talent while the crew scouts the area for the optimal shooting location.

The crew sets up and Kenny gets ready to roll:  3...2...1...

...Action!  Kenny launches into his song "Wake Up."  It took about a half-dozen or so takes before the camera captured everything needed for the video footage.

After shooting, while the crew was packing up the gear, Kenny unveiled another little ditty he wrote right on the spot -- it's his own personal PSA on the evils of mountaintop removal.  Luckily, I had my flip video camera handy.  Enjoy!