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Kathy Mattea

Once a Grammy-winning country superstar of the '80s and '90s, Kathy Mattea finds herself--like many of today's best artists--releasing material via her own label. Now she's free to be an artist as opposed to a glorified beer salesman, a job function music-industry victims continue to serve. The first album under her imprint is Coal, a series of old-school country songs about coal mining released in April, just in time for Earth Day.

Mattea, a West Virginia girl, brings unmistakable passion and sharp focus to this project. With production and mandolin performances courtesy of Marty Stuart, Coal shines, particularly on sparely arranged tracks like Billy Ed Wheeler's starkly poetic "Red-Winged Blackbird," where the sight of said bird stirs dread in the stomach of a miner's wife. "She'll dream about you when you're gone / She'll dream about you all her life," sings Mattea with Scotch-Irish diction, shooing the feathered omen away.

Yes, "Dark as a Dungeon" and "Black Lung" sound like metal-music titles, but Mattea's interpretations of these classics are heavier than teenage music. The latter, a Hazel Dickens tune rendered a cappela, is spellbinding: "Down in the poorhouse on starvation's plan / Where pride is a stranger and doomed is a man."

And the bluegrass version of "Coal Tattoo"? It will emblazon itself across your heart. In essence, Coal cuts like a diamond.

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