At one time, several members of my extended family were involved in coal mining at some level, and that’s probably true of many of us with rural roots. Along with farming (something my family also knew a little about), mining was one of the most common jobs around in those days. In some cases — especially during tough times — working men did both, working a shift in the mine while keeping up a farm too. But the two professions have another similarity — both have been the inspiration for a lot of America’s music.
A while back, I wrote about a song that was on the “B” side of “Sixteen Tons,” but I also paid tribute to the hit song itself, a classic Tennessee Ernie Ford salute to coal miners. This time around, I thought I’d continue to dig into that vein (groan — sorry), and revisit the link between music and mining by focusing on a different song.
Most of us can probably think of a few songs about mining (or coal miners’ daughters), but one of my favorites is a piece written by the same guy who wrote “Sixteen Tons,” Merle Travis. The legendary Travis had a big impact as a talented performer himself, but as a songwriter he had few peers.
The song is “Dark As A Dungeon,” and one of the best at performing it was Charlie Waller, the leader of the bluegrass group known as the Country Gentlemen. Beginning in 1957 and continuing almost nonstop (with occasional personnel changes) until Charlie’s death in 2004, the group was one of the most respected around. Their popularity even crossed genre lines because of their ties to the folk music community, along with their ability to perform the music of contemporary artists like Bob Dylan.
A miner’s song performed by a group called the Country Gentlemen — sounds like a natural fit to me.