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Kentuckians Make Music for Mountaintops

In the semester's headline event for the Appalachian Center, a group of Kentucky authors and musicians gathered in a packed Gray Auditorium to sing and speak out against the controversial mining method of mountaintop removal.

A group of authors and musicians perform at Gray Auditorium.

"Close your eyes for just a second and imagine someplace you love," began Kate Larken. "Now imagine that you've left that place, and you come back to it and it's rubble . That's exactly the kind of experience we're looking at with mountaintop removal."

In a rousing concert interspersed with facts, discussion and personal reflection, authors and musicians Silas House, Kate Larken, Jason Howard, George Ella Lyon, Anne Shelby and Shelby's sister, Jessie Lynne Keltner, put on a thought-provoking performance filled equally with humor and anger. The authors sought to educate the audience on the subject of mountaintop removal and inspire them to make a "public outcry."

The concert was also intended to promote the recent CD release of "Songs for the Mountaintop," the proceeds from which are going toward Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, an organization taking action to stop mountaintop removal and working to promote environmental and social justice. In addition to its other work, KFTC has offered several "author tours" that give many Kentucky authors and artists a first-hand view of the devastation left by mountaintop removal.

George Ella Lyon participated in the third of four author tours, where she was led through an old growth forest (with "dirt that looks good enough to eat with a spoon"), and then shown the mountaintop removal site directly next to the forest.

"You get up in a plane and you just see it's everywhere," said Lyon. "It makes you sick."

"I had no idea of the extent of it," said Anne Shelby, another tour participant.

Using the tours and other experiences as inspiration, the group came up with a strong collection of ballads and protest songs. With songs written and based on the traditional folk genre, the group joined quirky lyrics with chilling harmonies. One song written and performed by Lyon cried, "It's just a mountain / But it's got coal in it / They can bring it down / In about a minute." A later tongue-in-cheek lyric proclaimed, "got to have our lifestyle / got to have our fun."

Among the songs by Silas House and Jason Howard, the two members of the Doolittles, was a murder ballad where the murdered woman's name is "Mountain"; they also updated the famous coal mining anthem "Which Side Are You On" and related the lyrics to mountaintop removal.

The group also addressed myths about mountaintop removal. One portion of the concert took the form of a Q&A between a mining official played by Shelby and questioning activists. Shelby's statements were taken from actual statements made by mining officials.

Along with angry lyrics such as, "Don't you know that money is the only protected species around?" were those reminding the audience that they must band together for the good of the people and the earth. "Don't tear down these mountains with your mighty machines " proclaimed one song, adding, "The land and each other are all that we have."

While discussing rivers that have their headwaters in polluted coal mining areas, Larken pointed out, "We all live downstream and that's a good enough reason to care."

Judging from the filled auditorium and the standing ovation the group received, many people do care.

The event was sponsored by the Appalachian Center. For more about mountaintop removal or information on the Songs for the Mountaintop CD, visit the links below.

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