Decades of History Inspire Tom Breiding's New CD
Behe, Regis, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
LOGAN COUNTY, W.Va. -- Tom Breiding is standing on the eastern slope of Blair Mountain beneath a canopy of magnolia, poplar, beech and oak trees.
He has come here on this sun-splashed September day with Kenny King, an amateur historian who lives in Logan County and also works in the coal industry, seeking affirmation for a project he's been working on for eight years.
Breiding is about to release "The Unbroken Circle: Songs of the West Virginia Coalfields." While he is a native West Virginian -- born in Wheeling -- he has visited this part of "Almost Heaven" only a few times. Now a resident of McMurray, Washington County, he has reservations about a project that spans seven decades of West Virginia history.
"These are things I read about and wrote about, and now I'm here," says Breiding as King, wielding a metal detector, unearths 30.06 shotgun shells.
The metal casings are reminders that 86 years ago, the Battle of Blair Mountain was fought between 10,000 miners seeking union rights and 16,000 state policemen, deputies and militiamen hired by the coal-mining companies. In this part of the Mountain State, the confrontation remains an epic event, a reminder of the deep divide between the working man and the coal companies. Now, with mountaintop removal mining prevalent in Logan County, activists and miners are once again wary of what is transpiring.
"I have nothing against mining," King says. "It's just the way they're doing it."
This is the backdrop for Breiding's work, which includes the songs "Union Miner," "The Bull Moose Special" and "The Longest Darkest Day," an account of the Buffalo Creek flood in 1972, caused when a mine's gob pile dam collapsed. He says the CD is not a political statement but part of his mission as a storyteller.
"The state motto, right on the flag, is 'Mountaineers Are Always Free,'" Breiding says. "I feel a connection with everybody who comes from the state of West Virginia. That was part of the inspiration. And part of the inspiration is the rebellious side of things. These miners who were called on to take action (at the Battle of Blair Mountain) had to stand up for themselves to do something about their conditions."
"The Unbroken Circle" is colored by bluegrass -- or, as Breiding calls it, "old-timey" music -- a departure from the rock 'n' roll that has dominated his previous releases. And so, Breiding has come to Logan County to road-test these songs, to see if his artistic vision measures up with a reality he is acquainted with but does not really know.
Keeping the record straight
Roger Bryant knows a little bit about music and Logan County history. His grandmother was Aunt Jennie Wilson, a revered figure in Appalachian folk music circles. Bryant has had a few hit songs -- including "There Ain't Enough Whiskey in Tennessee to Drink the Ugly Off of You" -- and has shared stages with Tom T. Hall, Tammy Wynette, Kathy Mattea and Kris Kristofferson.
Most notably, Bryant's song "Stop the Flow of Coal," released in the mid-1970s, earned him national attention including an appearance on NBC's "Today."
So it's with a bit of trepidation that Breiding launches into "Union Miner" in Bryant's office at Logan Country Emergency Services, where Bryant serves as executive director.
Bryant listens intently as Breiding sings about a World War I veteran who feels disenfranchised because he has joined a union.
"Nice piece," Bryant says when Breiding has finished. "You've got it all in there."
Bryant says "Union Miner" and songs like it are important because they crystallize events that tend to fade as years pass.
"As the World War II vets die off, so does the real history, the real truth of World War II," Bryant says. "I think a lot of that is true of Blair Mountain. As those folks die off, the real history and truth of the Blair Mountain battle dies with them. …