Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Ode to the Appalachian Coal Miner...

There are so many talented people here in Appalachia. For every person you have heard of from this neck of the woods who can play and sing, there are many more playing in small venues, who's names are known by few but who are every bit as talented as the biggest star who ever graced the stage. One might say that there is as much unmined talent in these parts as there is unmined coal. One such talent that I stumbled upon quite by accident while researching music and/or videos to share with you regarding the people of Appalachia is one Alan Johnston or "cathead 77" as he calls himself on the YouTube videos that he posts. If you have never heard Mr. Johnston, or his daughters Stacy Grubb or Jessi owe it to yourself to find one of their CDs. Cathead is a rare and wonderful talent with a Waylon Jennings like voice. Raw and natural. Truly. As real as it gets -and in every way Appalachian. It is his rendition of Sweet Appalachia (and that of his band, "South 52) that I chose to represent the spirit of my entire blog.

The link for the song "Sweet Appalachia", performed by Mr. Johnston, is posted above--directly under the cover picture. To hear this anthem for what it is to be Appalachian, just click on the words "Sweet Appalachia". I believe that this song was also recorded by the great bluegrass legend, Del McCoury as well, but quite honestly, for this particular song, I prefer the raw and unembellished voice of "Cathead" to that of Del. Maybe it's because I know Mr. Johnston is living the life he's singing about. He is a resident of West Virginia and has been most of his life, so far as I know.

I do not know Mr. Johnston's heritage but, judging strictly from his soulful, beautiful voice, and his remarkable ability to put feelings into words through the songs that he writes, I would venture to guess that he is of the Scotch-Irish desent like so many in Appalachia are. Mr. Johnston, if I am wrong, my humble apologies to you sir. But your music so touched a chord within me that I wanted to share it and give you your proper due here in this, my own humble forum.

The fact is, like so many talented Appalachians, Mr. Johnston has many songs, most of which you probably have never heard before. Many tell a story of an actual event that happened in Appalachia or speak to ongoing events that affect this region. All resonate with his deep and abiding faith. I chose one here for this purpose to share with you because it is a tribute to the Appalachian coal miner, a profession shared by so many here in Eastern Kentucky and all through Appalachia. The song is entitled "Sky of Stone" and the accompanying pictures that Mr. Johnston uses with his song are from a world that was exactly like that of my daddy's coal mining days. My daddy's work was before the big machines and the mountain top removal methods used today. Daddy and his fellow mine brothers worked with pic axe and shovel, often on their hands and knees for eight hour shifts, forcing the earth to give up her bounty. For this they received what, for the time, might have been an honest days wage, but also an old man's lungs by the time they were thirty.
Just as today, the coal companies back then got rich off the backs of these Appalachian men.--while Appalachian families struggled to make ends meet. I'm not anti-coal production by any means, but it has always been the case that the coal companies made the money while the people and the land of Appalachia were used so long as they had something to give and then left behind when they had "give out".

This song, so beautifully and hauntingly sung (and written) by Mr. Johnston, along with his video, tells the story of yesterday's Appalachian coal miner. It is the lives of our fathers, and grandfathers in pictures set to music. It is their story, and it deserves to be told and no one tells it better than cathead in this song. No words that I could write would give you a deeper understanding of the conditions in which these men lived and died. Enjoy-- and if it moves you as it does me...perhaps you could drop Cathead a note and tell him you enjoyed his music. Oh, and his lovely, and oh so talented daughter, Stacy, is the voice you hear singing backup on this.

Daddy, I know that no one loved or missed coal mining any more than you did and if God allows, I know you're listening tonight in heaven as Cathead sings this tribute song to you and your many fellow miners and their families of Appalachia.

Joe France, Jr.-- 1921-1995 --beloved husband, father, grandfather, and Appalachian miner, I dedicate this song to you.
--To hear Cathead's song "Sky of Stone" , click on this link:
Note: Photograph above is called: "Coal Miner Teach Slone" I do not own the rights to this photograph. It is part of the Earl Palmer Appalachian Photograph and Artifact Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond Virginia and can be viewed at the Library of Virginia website. All rights and priviledges for this photograph belong to them.


  1. Mining is one occupation that takes a lot of courage and fortitude. Mining families must be a tough lot. I have a lot of respect for them.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)

  2. I stumbled on to your blog by accident and was pleasantly pleased and surprised at the wonderful comments you made concerning my music. I am truly humbled by your wonderful words and wanted to thank you so very much. You have really encouraged me tremendously. I am so thrilled that someone has enjoyed my songs. Thank you again.

    Alan Cathead Johnston

  3. It is I who should be thank YOU, Alan! I LOVE your real, so earthy, so Appalachia. Thank you for allowing me to promote it here on my website. Nothing else that I found spoke the language of the mountains I love like your songs did. Keep up the wonderful work!!

  4. Hello to all I am from Fl and been listening to Cathead's music for years. I know Cathead his wife and kids they are a great bunch of folk's. What you hear from Cathead is 100% real those hills run deep in his vanes and come out in his music. Anyone who has not heard his music owes it to their self to give this ol fellow a listening to. Even thou I haven't seen the family in a few years I'm sure Cathead will know who wrote this if he sees it.


  5. That is my g-g-g grandfather Teach in the picture above. If anyone can give me details of where I could find the actual picture of him, please let me know!