Before Daniel Martin Moore and Ben Sollee ever met, they were united by a love for their Kentucky homeland and Appalachia's rich musical culture. Classically trained cellist Sollee made his name as part of the folk supergroup Sparrow Quartet (which also featured Béla Fleck) before launching a solo career with 2008's Learning To Bend, while Moore came from obscurity with his folky 2008 debut Stray Age after scoring a deal with Sub Pop on the strength of an unsolicited demo. But they bonded after Sollee heard Moore's song "Flyrock Blues," a quiet, plaintive protest song about the environmental and social destruction caused by mountaintop-removal mining, a controversial method of extracting coal that literally blasts away the top layer of an entire mountain. Their collaboration soon blossomed into a full-fledged album, Dear Companion, produced by fellow Kentuckian Yim Yames, better known as Jim James of My Morning Jacket. Though the mining issue is at the heart of Dear Companion, it's not so much a protest record as a celebration of Appalachian culture mixed with concern about what stands to be lost. Moore and Sollee are on tour now behind the album, playing this Wednesday at the Boulder Theater. Moore talked to The A.V. Club about the album, its inspirations, and the importance of staying positive.
The A.V. Club: Given your different musical backgrounds, was it difficult to make a collaboration work?
Daniel Martin Moore: No, it was effortless. We all three have pretty different approaches, but admire each other's music. But we all clicked personally, and musically it all just came together.
AVC: How did you become interested in the mountaintop removal mining issue?
DMM: Kentucky has a really fragile economy. We have a lot of people living in poverty. But we produce a tremendous amount of wealth for other people. Kentucky, just based on a concentration of natural resources, we ought to be one of the wealthiest places in the northern hemisphere, because we have so much coal and export billions and billions of dollars worth of the stuff every year. But none of that revenue stays at home. It goes to multinational energy corporations, and venture capitalists who fund these really quick and dirty strip jobs. And when you destroy the land, you're not going to be able to use it for anything else. So we're left with fewer jobs, wrecked water, really poor health, and absolutely none of the financial rewards that could go to soothe all those other issues. It's just a really obvious injustice, and one our politicians are completely incapable of fixing, because they have such close ties to the industries.
AVC: Considering how strongly you, Ben, and Jim James all feel about the MTR issue, Dear Companion is almost surprisingly gentle. Why not do something more polemical?
DMM: That's a good question. It's really not our place. We're musicians, we're not activists. What I hope happens is that people just learn about MTR. If they're outraged and want to take action to stop it, fantastic. If they want to just listen to the record because they think one of Ben's songs is really cool, or they like one of my songs, that's great too. It's what the listener does with the song, the thought process that is hopefully sparked by the record—that is what can change the world. The song itself is just a tune, you know. It's possible for it to contribute to actual action, but the song itself is just a song. We didn't just want to holler at folks, and berate people with a frustrated or angry message. To me it's more important to focus on the beauty we have left, and the importance of preserving it. I think there's much more power in that than in pointing fingers. Because ideally, the issue would be resolved, and everybody would be happy. Maybe we could come to a conclusion where there's no more MTR, but the companies can still make money and people can live healthy lives and have good, sustainable jobs that won't go away when the mountain is gone. But in order to achieve something like that, you can't go in calling someone an S.O.B. [Laughs.] Because that's not a constructive piece of the puzzle.
AVC: Dear Companion's title song was inspired by a letter you found in Ronald Eller's book Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, written by a dying coal miner trapped in a mine collapse.
DMM: He was writing this letter on a scrap of paper in his pocket with a piece of coal, and he just kept saying, "Dear Eleanor," who was his wife, "I love you and I'm so sorry we won't get to spend the rest of our lives together raising our children." It was heartbreaking. You could tell where he had ended the letter, and a few minutes later he would write "Dear Eleanor," and say something else, while the people around him were literally suffocating. It was something I'll never be able to forget. We ended up writing "Dear Companion," imagining it was written by central Appalachia to the rest of the country, saying, "Are you paying attention to what's happening to us?" There's so much that this region has given and continues to give, to furnish the modern conveniences we all have and take for granted, but are you paying attention to the actual cost of that?
AVC: What was your goal for Dear Companion? Beyond enjoyment of the music, what do you hope listeners come away with after hearing it?
DMM: We'd love for people to learn more about MTR, and make up their own minds. We're not trying to tell people how to think about it. But the record itself is a celebration of the music that we grew up on and we love, the cultural heritage of Appalachia that raised us. Appalachia is such an integral part of our national identity. The music, the stories, there's so much of the mythology and identity of being an American that grew in those hills, with people like Daniel Boone. It used to be the western frontier, you know?
As sad and devastating as MTR is, we're not gone yet as a state and as a culture. And we feel a lot of hope. There's a lot of really beautiful things happening and people are starting to pay attention. Our shows are not just us standing on stage being all weepy and complaining, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] They're very much a celebration of Appalachian culture. And that's really what we want people to take away. We want people to recognize that Appalachia and the music and the heritage that comes from there is such a treasure.