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Country music singer Kathy Mattea visits Charles Town

July 18, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Coal mining is very much a strong thread in the life of country music singer Kathy Mattea.

The Kanawha County, W.Va., native's grandfathers were miners, her mother worked for the United Mine Workers and her brother still works in the coal industry.

Jefferson County's historic ties to one of the coal industry's most tumultuous times in state mining history provided a strand for the singer's visit Friday to the county's old jail in Charles Town.

During a two-hour stop between shows in Morristown, N.J., and Orkney Springs, Va., Mattea toured the recently restored living quarters of the county jailer and the adjoining cell block, both of which have been converted for state circuit and family court.

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In 1922, the jail held the leaders of a labor uprising among coal miners in southern West Virginia that became known as the Battle of Blair Mountain.

Among the treason trials that followed at the county's historic courthouse in Charles Town was that of Bill Blizzard, considered by authorities to be the "general" of the miners army, according to historic accounts. All charges against Blizzard eventually were dropped.

"It's just great to be here and get to see this," Mattea said. "And it just happened to be right exactly where we're driving through today," Mattea said in a press conference at the Old Opera House.

"It's just wonderful to see you guys honor the past in moving forward into the future ... they don't build buildings like these buildings anymore... they just don't do it," Mattea said.

"(During the tour) I looked at someone that was with me and said, 'What did the people do that you held here? Were they just the worst of the worst, because this jail is like, so air-tight."

"It's so much easier to just bring the wrecking ball in and knock it down and slap something new up, you know. There are generations who will benefit from this work that you guys have done."

County Commissioner Jim Surkamp joked that a wrecking ball likely would have "bounced off" the jail, which was slated for demolition in 2000.

That plan was protested by Carol Gallant, who said county leaders at that time failed to comply with laws that required a historic review of property listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Six years and several fundraisers later, the jail's preservation was assured by a change in political climate on the county commission, said Doug Estepp, another outspoken opponent of the jail's destruction.

"It's been a long fight," Estepp said.

Mattea's visit attracted a small crowd of fans and community leaders who sought autographs and the opportunity to meet the 49-year-old Grammy winner who arrived in her tour bus about 10 a.m.

Jefferson County deputy circuit clerk Laura Rattenni was excited about Mattea's visit.

"She's inspiring," said Rattenni, describing herself as a huge fan. "Her music is from the heart."

Her favorite song is Mattea's Grammy-winning single "18 Wheels and a Dozen Roses."

Mattea said the Sago Mine disaster in Upshur County, W.Va., inspired her latest album, Coal, which was released April 1. All but one of 13 miners trapped by an explosion Jan. 2, 2006, died.

"I was really touched by that ... and ... spent so many hours just like everybody, holding my breath."

When asked about the controversial strip mining known as mountaintop removal, Mattea recounted her childhood days hiking, running trout lines, digging for night crawlers and exploring caves.

"Because I spent so much time falling in love with this place as a kid, I (had a) real visceral reaction when I saw mountaintop removal.

"And the thing that struck me is that a lot of people who are living at the base of these mines have no voice for their story to be heard. They don't have multi-million dollar PR firms behind them," said Mattea, who indicated a willingness to help them achieve that.

"Everybody is just trying to keep their way of life going. Everybody. And so how do we do that in a way that's nobody has to be marginalized? What's the solution? I don't know."

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