Photo: Allen Ralph
In the early days of my study into today’s independent country music scene, as I sought out smart people to help me understand what I was witnessing, I was surprised at how often the topic of rock music came up.
Many people told me that the energy surrounding this country revival reminded them of earlier, underground rock music scenes. Some went even further and asserted that the contemporary rock genre had grown so lifeless that this indie country scene was the only real home for young audiences who, in the past, would have gravitated toward rock.
It was a compelling position. Rock-n-roll has always represented a kind of primal scream from people feeling alienated and unseen by the dominant monoculture—and much of this new music bubbling up from Appalachia, Texas, the North American West, and points in between, while sonically sounding like traditional country and folk, roars with that exact sense of disenfranchisement.
Logan Halstead’s extraordinary new album, Dark Black Coal, is a powerful addition to this new canon. Halstead is a 19-year-old Kentucky-born, West Virginia-raised artist who first gained recognition two years ago when a video of his song “Dark Black Coal” was posted by RadioWV. It got over 200,000 views in the first few days.
“Up until that point, I never thought of being a musician,” Halstead recently told me. “I never thought I could. I loved playing as a hobby. But that was a big moment.”
Halstead was playing larger venues and drawing comparisons to Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers when he came to the attention of Thirty Tigers President David Macias. “I thought he was a great chronicler of his time and place,” said Macias. “Despite being young, there was a maturity in his worldview. He was already a great songwriter and performer,” he said.
Halstead’s much-anticipated album, produced by Lawrence Rothman and distributed by Thirty Tigers, is a stark montage of contemporary Appalachia, a tour through a region ravaged by greed and indifference. It is music from the country, without a doubt, but it vibrates with estrangement and defiance, giving the record a hard edge.
The first song on the album, “Good Ol’ Boys with Bad Names,” begins with a cold open, up-tempo staccato music and lyrics coming in together, hitting you like a hailstorm. “Well I come from the holler, where you beg to get a dollar//You go up the road for a baggie of dope//Won’t you cut me out one, babe.” The fiddle reassures you that this is a mountain song, but the story, and its despair, could just as easily have emerged from urban back alleys where garage bands find their inspiration.
When we spoke, Halstead acknowledged that he was influenced by Metallica and 1990s grunge rock. “Me and Cole Chaney bonded over it,” he says of his friend and fellow Kentucky artist. Chaney remembers their earlier years exploring that music too. “I was a big fan of Alice in Chains and Logan was more into Pearl Jam. We’d play those bands’ songs back and forth for each other. To this day, when we’re sitting around a campfire, we listen to more rock than anything else,” Chaney said.
That rock influence also shows in the treatment Halstead gives the coal industry. It is a force that put food on the table for generations of Appalachians, but he isn’t afraid to speak bare truths about it. He writes, “Oh, Coal River won’t you wash my bones away//I’m slaving for the company and I can’t get any pay//Well mining coal ain’t a way to make a life//And I can’t feed the hunger of three kids and a wife.”
On other songs Halstead anthropomorphizes coal—and none of the human characteristics he assigns it are positive. In “Dark Black Coal” he sings, “Don’t let my children become the victims of the mountain’s evil ways.”
He doesn’t sugarcoat it in person either.
“Sure the money is great, and some of the mines are great,” Halstead told me. “But most of them are just pumping money out of the ground. All of our family members that work in them are just pawns in a game of money. Every parent, every grandparent around my area growing up, they told all the kids this is not the life you want. Between the dangers in the mines themselves, the strikes, and long-term health problems, the whole history of the coal mines has not been, ‘oh this is awesome.’”
It’s true what others have written about Halstead: his songwriting is ahead of schedule. His working-class anthems that air inconvenient truths recall other music moments, again, often in the rock space, that pushed into the collective view a vital segment of the population going through a tumultuous, desperate transition.
The truth is, country and rock have always been close cousins. The latter is an evolutionary offshoot of the former. Each has borrowed from the other. Halstead’s album reminds me of Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Wreck on the Highway,” which itself was inspired by the Roy Acuff song of the same name. In both versions, these icons of their genres narrate tales of a man coming across a car accident, and leaves haunted by what he sees. Throughout Dark Black Coal, Halstead combs through the Appalachian crash site. And it’s the rest of us who should be bothered by what he’s showing us.