Rockers and Authors Showcase Common Cause in Kentucky
by Beth Newberry
On Thursday night, Dec. 29, hundreds of people—city and country folk—crowded the lobby of the Brown Theatre in downtown Louisville, Ky. waiting for the doors of the theatre to open to grab the best of the general admission seats for the sold out show featuring rock ‘n’ roll powerhouse Yim Yames (a.k.a. Jim James) of My Morning Jacket, solo artists Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore, percussionist Dan Dorff, banjo player Joan Shelley and writers Silas House and Jason Howard.
It’s not common for writers to receive equal billing with headlining musicians, but in this instance the motley group was together for a sold out benefit concert, which raised approximately $30,000 for the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. KFTC, as it’s commonly referred, is a statewide organization that works for economic, political and environmental justice. While the proceeds benefitted the organization’s work as a whole, the artists in particular were vocal in raising awareness of mountaintop removal (MTR) mining and the threats of the practice towards water and air quality in eastern Kentucky. “There would be no organized anti-MTR movement in [Kentucky] without” KFTC, says Silas House, co-author of Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal, with Jason Howard, who was also a featured reader at the event. “So I’ll do whatever I can to help them out in any way I can.”
As a sold-out crowd of 1,400 music lovers, urbanites, activists, obsessive literary fans, and a few rural Appalachians grabbed seats and settled in for the show, the scene was one that makes most urban Apps feel at home—a city event filled with Americana music, talk of the mountains and southern-cured accents. “Lots of folks from down home drove up for this concert,” says House of Berea, Ky. “I’m very proud to have been a part of this fundraiser and to work with ‘the city folk’ and the folks from down home,” he continues. “We’re all in this together. If music doesn’t bind us all, then the desire for clean water certainly does.”
Tiffany Williams of McRoberts in Letcher County, Ky., a site of active MTR mining, was one of the “folks from down home” who drove up for the concert. “I attended the same concert [in 2010] in Knoxville. Each time, I’ve come away wholly inspired by the art and activism,” she says. The Knoxville concert was part of a ten-show “Appalachian Voices” tour Sollee, Dorff, Moore, and Yames embarked on in the summer of 2010. They stopped in Appalachian and near-Appalachian cities like Knoxville, Lexington, Ky., Charleston, W.Va. and Charlottesville, Va., as well as Rhode Island and New York, to raise awareness about and money towards efforts ending MTR. A portion of the proceeds benefited Boone, N.C.-based environmental advocacy organization, Appalachian Voices.
Sollee and Moore collaborated on the 2009 album “Dear Companion” produced by Jim James. The album captured in song a love for Kentucky and central Appalachia—its land and citizens, as well as the battle over MTR. At last week’s concert, Sollee, Moore and Dorff’s performance of the title track was fierce and breathtaking. Daniel Martin Moore’s careful delivery of the ballad offset with the urgency Dorff’s body percussion (hand claps, dance, and if you squint real hard, maybe some flat-footin’) and Sollee’s haunting cello accompaniment was a highlight of the show for this concert-goer.
Watch Moore, Dorff and Sollee perform “Dear Companion”:
The show also included a solo set of approximately ten songs by Jim James singing My Morning Jacket favorites and a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Time Slips Away” to a hometown crowd. James encouraged his fans to become members of KFTC and to “not stay trapped in your own head. Stay informed [on the issues] and stand up” with people “who are suffering needlessly.” The Sollee-Moore set included a haunting cover of Appalachian chanteuse Jean Ritchie’s song “In the Cool of the Day” as well as a personal favorite “Bury Me with My Car” from Sollee’s solo album “Learning to Bend.” Personal messages of urgency, immediacy and hope were scattered throughout, particularly in the poetry of Silas House and the nonfiction prose of Jason Howard. House remarked, “I truly believe that an artist has a responsibility to speak out, to stand up and add their voice if they have even a tiny public presence. Being Appalachian and an artist are inseparable for me.”
But leave it to singer-songwriter Sollee to concisely and imaginatively make the grand point of the evening: “I want to be able to hike those mountains with my son, and since he was born, some we can’t [hike] because they are gone.”