Music for the Mountains

Article Published: Feb. 25, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Music for the Mountains

Ben Sollee

Appalachian Voices loves mountains.

Through grassroots activism and unflinching determination, the Boone-based nonprofit organization has brought environmental stewardship to the human level, raising awareness and offering opportunities for anyone - anywhere - to help.

Enter Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore, two Kentucky musicians who've collaborated on a new album, Dear Companion, to fight mountaintop removal mining, an effort near and dear to Appalachian Voices' heart.

Mountaintop removal is a form of surface mining in which explosives are used to blast the summit or ridge of a mountain to access and remove seams of coal, with the excess rubble deposited into nearby valleys.

According to Appalachian Voices, "This devastating practice has, to date, destroyed more than 500 mountains and buried more than 2,000 miles of stream" in Appalachia, in turn negatively affecting water quality and the health of those living downstream.

With a focus on the central and southern Appalachian Mountains, Appalachian Voices' stated mission is "to empower people to defend our region's rich natural and cultural heritage by providing them with tools and strategies for successful grassroots campaigns."

Kentuckians Sollee and Moore are using music, and they're donating their profits from album sales to Appalachian Voices.

A benefit concert Monday, March 1, at the Boone Saloon in downtown Boone will raise awareness for their efforts, while offering High Country residents a chance to contribute.

"Mountaintop removal's definitely in our backyard," Sollee said. "We've got so much cultural heritage invested in these mountains as a nation that it's baffling to me that it exists at all. If this was happening in the Rocky Mountains or Adirondacks, people just wouldn't stand for it. It would've stopped a long time ago."

Coal mining is engrained in Appalachian culture, Sollee said, "because as a nation, we've asked a lot of them, for their greatest natural resource - coal - and they've given it. This record should let the nation know that we've been giving a little too much."

Though he grew up in Appalachia, Sollee is quick to admit he was raised in the contemporary urban landscape of Lexington, Ky., where he studied classical cello and listened to hip-hop - sounds that would seemingly contrast, but many of which hail directly from Appalachia.

"I feel I'm a really interesting mutt of cultural influences here in Kentucky," he said. "I sort of see how I've grown up as a big allegory for where we are in the world right now - globalization has spread out, changing it all, and we're living side by side with each other."

This is reflected in Sollee's music, a sound not typical to most singer-songwriters. Rather than picking a guitar, Sollee plucks the cello, interweaving its classical sounds with those of folk, blues and even hip-hop.

"It's a very organic process," he said. "I hear these very Appalachian sounds, but I also grew up playing in orchestra and traveling around, getting to play with amazing musicians who collectively make one of the most marvelous sounds we could make as a unit. So, I hear those sounds, miss those sounds in this particular vernacular of music, so, personally, I like to put them in."

This could involve tuba and clarinet with cross-picking guitar and vocal tracks, or a seamless infusion of hip-hop with folk. "And it's not to try to differentiate the music, but rather because that's where I'm coming from - I have that in my life," he said.

The title track to Dear Companion, penned by Sollee and Moore, is a prime example.
"It's basically based around a fiddle tune sound form, super-driving, super-hard, and that's where it started," Sollee said. "And that's where Yim Yames comes in."

Yames, who produced the record, is also a guitarist and singer-songwriter, performing in such notable musical forays as Monsters of Folk and My Morning Jacket

"Yim Yames comes in and starts pulling on the Jenga blocks, seeing what makes it fall into place," Sollee said. "He brings in some huge rock drums and mechanical-like sounds, which gives the track a more cinematic, insidious feel."

Moore's unique style richens this amalgamation. Like Sollee, Moore is not your typical singer-songwriter. Though steeped in sounds of folk, his tunes bear an unmistakable indie influence. Sub Pop Records (to which Sollee and Moore are signed) describes Moore's vocals as "captivating," likening their understated richness to those of Nick Drake and a soft swing reminiscent of Chet Baker.

"The track really encompasses a lot of influences," Sollee said. "You've got old-time banjo going in there, a cellist who's doing fiddling; you've got high lonesome vocals, these big rock drums, so that track alone is real representative about what this album is, which is a recognition of our influences from Appalachian through the prism of our contemporary lives, where we live and work next to people from the other side of the world."

Sollee and Moore met a little more than a year and a half ago, Sollee having found Moore's music on MySpace. Both were already fighting mountaintop removal through involvement with nonprofit Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, when they decided to join forces.

"Even though our musical backgrounds are very different, we decided we could pull together and do something that could be one more iron in the fire to helping people recognize this issue nationally," Sollee said.

Joining Sollee and Moore are percussionist Dan Dorff, who performed with the hit show Stomp in London, England, and Cheyenne Mize, fiddler, guitarist and singer, featured on Bonnie "Prince" Billy's album, Among the Gold.

"We all live downstream from these mountains, and we're all connected to them," Sollee said. "That's why I think it's an important issue on the national level."
So important that Sollee, Moore and Sub Pop contacted Appalachian Voices with the idea for a benefit.
"We're very appreciative of Ben's and Dan's decision, and also Sub Pop Records, who is making a cash donation to our work and helping with the sale of CDs, which will, in turn, help us," Appalachian Voices executive director Willa Mays said.

Appalachian Voices officially launched its campaign against mountaintop removal in 2002, establishing the popular Web site,, four years later. The organization is also a member of the Alliance for Appalachia, a network of 13 likeminded grassroots organizations, all of whom will reap the benefits from Sollee's and Moore's contributions.

Proceeds from the record sales will directly support

"There's a lot of technical work that goes into keeping the Web site fresh and up-to-date," Mays said. "There's a lot of research that goes into getting the correct information up, and it's also very interactive. We've built a national network of people, contacts with thousands and thousands of people who have pledged to help end mountaintop removal."

That number now exceeds 40,000, and Mays said the Web site is instrumental in maintaining contact with them.

Dear Companion bolsters that contact on the personal level.

"It gives us an opportunity to get out in front of a lot of people who may not otherwise hear the issue of mountaintop removal or of Appalachian Voices," Mays said, "and they're doing it from the heart. They really care about the places they're singing about."

"We want people to leave with a feeling that they're really connected to the music of Appalachia," Sollee said. "Not really a tribute or homage to it, but as much as these are our roots, and this is what it sounds like where we've grown up."

With Dear Companion just released Feb. 16, Sollee and Moore are now on tour, performing and spreading the word. Plus, an Appalachian Voices representative will attend most of the shows, providing audiences with information about the issue.

"The decision of Ben, Daniel, Yum and Sub Pop to help further educate the public on this issue will definitely give us a boost, and we are deeply appreciative," Mays said.

The concert takes place Monday, March 1, at 10 p.m. at the Boone Saloon, located at 489 W. King St. Admission costs $10.

For more information on the artists, visit, and

For more information on Appalachian Voices, located at 191 W. Howard St. in downtown Boone, call (828) 262-1500 or visit or

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