A song-cycle about the injustices and industry of the West Virginia coal mining country, Mary Hott’s Devil in the Hills: Coal Country Reckoning satisfies as a chronicle of the past, a testament to the fortitude of those who came before, and as a musical offering.
Centered around the Whipple Company Store and Museum (Fayette Co., established circa1890,) Devil in the Hills: Coal Country Reckoning is based on stories collected by Joy Lynn as visitors to the museum shared their lived experiences.
Produced by Don Dixon and Michael Lipton, and featuring instrumentation closer to generalized Americana than traditional old-time or bluegrass, the star of the album is Mary Hott. Singer and songwriter, she shares the spotlight with the people who lived and endured in the area, and who contributed their stories of life in the mining towns, where the company store ‘stood strong’ over the camp and its employees and their families.
Part historical research project, this album breathes life into the stories of these people, and the accompanying booklet expands the listeners’ understanding. Songs like “Annabelle Lee”—about a rented ‘comfort girl’—and “Room of Lost Souls”—about the mysterious death of a survivor’s father—include authenticity via detail taken from the various documents collected by Joy Lynn and her spouse, Charles.
Particularly gruesome are the facts informing “Take the Esau,” a song about the abuses and rapes endured by the women of the community; unable to afford new shoes for their family, those women in need were take to “The Rape Room” to pay their due. “Devil in the Hills” extends this aspect of the story, giving voice to the hidden shame that few openly acknowledged but everyone was aware: “If you don’t believe me at my word, if you don’t believe one thing you’ve heard, then shame on you.”
Given the circumstances, the Coal Wars were inevitable. Tying the album together are the brief “Blair Mountain Ballad,” a nod to the insurrection of protesting, pro-Union miners in 1921 who were met by the private army of the coal operators and the U.S. Army, “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” and a revised “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” These songs, coming late in the cycle and with “Rise Up, WV,” acknowledge the intergenerational trauma that has scarred the soul of those who are tied to the unfair labour and social practices of previous times.
Hott is a West Virginian, one brave enough to seek the truth about her state and the industry that shaped it during previous decades. We all know the broad strokes, whether specific to West Virginia or generalized to the circumstance as a whole—“I owe my soul to the company store,” bloody Harlan, the Yablonski murders, black lung, and the rest. What Hott and her compatriots have done with Devil In The Hills: Coal Country Reckoning is delve into, with care and understanding, the unspoken, hidden aspects of these communities.
It is a brilliant collection of music, story, and song.