Kentucky Artist Joins NRDC's Music Saves Mountains: Ben Sollee

Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel

And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land

Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken

Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.

— John Prine, “Paradise”

It's fair to say that I don't necessarily get to know the artists who join NRDC's Music Saves Mountains initiative before they sign on to lend their voice to the effort to stop the world's worst coal mining: mountaintop removal.  I mean, I usually meet with or speak to them in the course of educating them about the issue and enlisting them into our campaign.  But there is an exception. 

Atlhough I had heard many wonderful things about the talented Mr. Ben Sollee, long before it occurred to me to ask him to join his fellow artists in this cause I actually got to hang out with him.  In fact, we spent a couple of weekends together flying over mountaintop mines in Kentucky, hiking in the West Virginia hills to view the destruction up close, and even meeting with state environmental regulators in Tennessee. 

As a native Kentuckian, Ben is as passionate about stopping mountaintop removal in Appalachia as anyone I've ever met.  He's also seen the problem up close and personal, as well, which explains why he is so inspired to put his music to work saving mountains.  I am so grateful that my friend Ben is involved in our campaign.

For those who don't yet know of this gentle soul or who haven't experienced his talent firsthand, do yourself a favor and take a listen to his new album, Dear Companion, which is inspired by mountaintop removal and rooted in this proud Kentuckians sense of place.  Ben, a classically trained cellist, provides the orchestral sound while harmonizing beautifully with guitarist (and fellow Kentuckian) Daniel Martin Moore.  Dear Companion explores their ties to the place they love and aims to draw attention to the problems reckless that coal mining are causing to the people and heritage of Appalachia.

As described by Kentucky author Silas House, the ablum is "not so much a record of protest as it is one that illuminates the global issues that are part of that problem — a burgeoning culture of greed, consumption and apathy."  House, himself a noted expert on mountaintop removal, also says this about Dear Companion:  

"Simply enough, this is an amazing album that aches with honesty, longing and hope. Every song is a wonderful creation, and they all hang together to form a true album that plays much like a rich, layered novel.  While the theme might be dark, the music is not.  Every song is shot through with light."

Even the very title of several of the songs -- "My Wealth Comes to Me", "Flyrock Blues", "Wilson Creek" -- evoke the tragedy playing out across the coalfields of Appalachia.  By fusing mountain music and rock, for a totally unique yet somehow familiar sound, the emotion-packed songs serve as both a protest against the loss of these majestic mountains and a plaintive cry for deliverance for those who live in the hollows.

"Listening to songs like these makes the listener realize the power of art to shed light, to begin the process of change and healing," writes House.

(Daniel Martin Moore and Ben Sollee)

In a lengthy interview Ben gave to a music magazine, he described how he came to learn about mountaintop removal.  Upon flying over a mining site, Ben said he expected to see desolation -- mounds of rubble, piles of dirt, waterwys polluted and the scars of a mountain blown aprt -- but what shocked him was the sheer scale of the destruction. 

“The scale is really just staggering to me,” said Sollee. “You're flying 800 miles per hour above it for minutes and minutes.”

Bear in mind that Ben, who hails from Lexington and now calls Louisville home, is no city boy.  His Appalachian roots run deep -- his grandfather was a coal miner in Williamsburg, Ky.  But Ben realizes that this most extreme method of strip mining is devastating his home state and the entire region.  Now this rising star is devoted to using his music as a megaphone to raise national awareness about mountaintop removal, and he's even donating proceeds from record sales to grassroots citizen groups working to bring an end to this abhorrent practice.

"Music can get where the issue can't get to.  All we ever wanted to do is give the issue a place to go," says Ben.  "I just feel like if people knew about mountaintop removal, they'd say, ‘You know, that ain't worth it.  We have to find something else.'”

That's music to my ears.  Let's hear it for my dear companion, Ben Sollee.