I love history and if songwriters work that into their songs I’m just about in heaven.
Mary Hott with The Carpenter Ants do that with Devil in the Hills - Coal Country Reckoning. The tales go back to 1890 when coal magnate Justis Collins built the Whipple Company Store in Fayette County around 1890.
In July 2015, Mary made the first of her three annual visits to the Whipple Company Store and Museum. All this time the singer-songwriter was soaking in the museum owner’s Joy Lynn stories which gave her a better understanding of the people and the hard lives they led in the coal camps.
“Taking the words of the people and expressing their stories through music was a catharsis for me,” Mary recalled. “Growing up here, we were never taught the real reasons behind the mine wars. Powerful forces wanted to keep it hidden. And it occurred to me, when people are forced to hide their trauma, it causes deep emotional damage that can be passed through generations. I consider it generational trauma that still exists today.”
Joy also shared two books she’d written with Mary, “Coal Camp Voices” and “Life in the Shadows.”
The deeper the singer immersed herself in this true history, the closer Devil in the Hills began to become a reality.
“The mine bosses constantly cheated the miners. The miners’ wages went back to the company as rent for housing and whatever else they earned went to the company store for food and other necessities. And the coal companies hired mine guards to stop the miners from unionizing. It was slave labor, but they figured out how not to call it slavery,” Mary concluded.
There was financial deprivation, anti-union violence, intimidation and systemic sexual exploitation of women and girls.
Mary was born and raised in the small town of Paw Paw, West Virginia. She began singing in the children’s choir at a local Methodist Church. After church, her family would gather on the porch and continue the gospel music. Across the street, she could hear more coming from a small African American church.
Her mother introduced her to big band swing. As a preteen she would sneak in the back door of the local American Legion and catch a listen of the up-and-coming bunch of swinging hippies called Asleep at the Wheel.
So this album has become the most important work of her career, Devil in the Hills: Coal Country Reckoning.
Her launching her national campaign for Devil in the Hills during the 100th anniversary year of the Battle of Blair Mountain. In the late summer of 1921, 10,000 union miners battled an army of 3,000 state police officers, deputies and militiamen. The fighting didn’t end until federal troops arrived.
“I don’t come from a coal family,” Mary said. “Paw Paw is an old canal and railroad town. But similar to the coalfields, we have our own unmarked graves and stories of the slave-like working conditions of the immigrants who dug the canal, built the tunnels, laid the track, all in pre-mining days. The working class everywhere has similar shared experiences, over multiple generations. I lost my own father from a massive heart attack after working three overtime shifts at a chemical company.”