Emmylou Harris Talks Music Saves Mountains Coalition

Music Features Emmylou Harris
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Emmylou Harris is angry. The mountains and valleys of Appalachia—which she calls the “sacred ground” of country music—are in danger from the controversial mountaintop removal mining method. So the multi-Grammy-Award winner has teamed with the Gibson Foundation and the Natural Resources Defense Council to form Music Saves Mountains, a coalition of like-minded artists seeking to put an end to MTR mining in Appalachia.

“This is something that we should be up in arms about, to protect this part of the country that has given us so much culture as well as so much of our greenery, so much of what makes America the beautiful,” Harris tells Paste. “And yet they’re just literally blowing the tops off these mountains and creating a moonscape, which if you can see the pictures, it’s devastating—like a sacrilege, unbelievable.”

In MTR, explosives are used to blow away chunks of the mountains, exposing the thin strips of coal below and leaving behind rubble and decapitated peaks where there was once a serene landscape. This practice differs greatly from traditional underground coal mining, which has been a backbone of the Appalachian economy for nearly a century. Music Saves Mountains’ goal is not to eradicate coal mining as a whole, just the practice of MTR. “Coal mining has been going on in Appalachia for a hundred years, and the biodiversity of the region has been left intact,” says Dr. Allen Hershkowitz of the NRDC. “What this campaign is about is protecting the cultural history and the cultural heritage of Appalachia, and coal mining is part of that heritage. What MTR is doing is destroying that heritage. It’s putting miners out of work, it’s destroying the forests, it’s polluting water, so this is really the worst of all worlds. It’s bad for the economy and it’s bad for the environment.”

The NRDC and Music Saves Mountains work to support legislation (Tennessee’s Scenic Vistas Act and the Appalachian Restoration Act) that would ultimately put a stop to MTR mining in the Appalachian Mountains. And tonight (May 19), they will host a concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville to raise funds for that cause. The concert will see some of music’s biggest names sharing the stage; Alison Krauss, Dave Matthews, Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, Patty Loveless, Tift Merritt and Harris are all slated to perform and show their support for the many unheard voices from that swath of land that stretches from West Virginia to Kentucky and Tennessee.

“I think it’s so important that we take up arms, in the sense of using our voices not just in song, but in speaking out against this, and just say, ‘This is our sacred ground, and we’re not going to stand for this,’” Harris says.

Harris hopes to make the Music Saves Mountains concert at the Ryman an annual affair until the group reaches its goal of seeing MTR mining outlawed. And for both Harris and Hershkowitz, putting and end to the detrimental practice will have greater benefits than preserving the landscape and natural beauty—it will help the oftentimes overlooked people of Appalachia. “Why is it okay to do it there and not in the Adirondacks or the Rockies? People would be outraged!” Harris says. “Because poor people live there, we think we can do anything. We think of them as somehow powerless. Well, people are not powerless. If they’ve got something they’re going to fight for, I tell ya, I wouldn’t stand in their way.”

Hershkowitz agrees. “They would never allow this in the Rockies; they would never allow this in the Sierra Nevada; they would never allow this in the Adirondacks,” says the NRDC senior scientist. “This is a cultural bias against Appalachia that just has to change.”

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