NY Times, Co. About.com ***** awards 5 of 5 stars ***** :"Breiding is a fantastic songwriter, and an even more gifted performer. His lyrics are honest and empathic, and the instrumentation is outstanding."
Sing Out Magazine:"I suspect some of these songs will slip into the repertoire of others and make their way into the tradition.In an age of too many love songs, it's a joy to hear a talented artist focus on an aspect of America often neglected."
Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide:"Entering new songs in the musical-historical record."
Dirty Linen Magazine:"It is the strength of the songwriting that makes the biggest impression.... Breiding's composition "The House We Called Home" is likely to become a new folk standard."
Bluegrass Unlimited:"The Unbroken Circle is recommended listening for anyone interested in the struggles of the coal mining community."
Dave Higgs, Bluegrass Breakdown, Nashville Public Radio:"I don't know whatever happened to the concept CD, but with "The Unbroken Circle" Tom has brought it back into prominence with a vengeance. There's some stark reality and powerful music here..."
Rege Behe, Pittsburgh Tribune Review:"The Unbroken Circle is as good as anything that has come out of Western Pennsylvania in the the last 20 years. It is rare to come across an album that so completely reflects its subject matter. Breiding has done his homework, both lyrically and musically. Close your eyes and it's easy to imagine being in the hills of West Virginia, sitting around a campfire, hearing these songs being spun from the heart."
About.com Folk Music Guide (New York Times Company) by Kim Ruehl. Guide Rating - 5 out of 5 stars
There have been numerous collections released through the years of songs and recordings paying tribute to, and telling the stories of coal miners, their families, and their work. This collection features a couple of traditional songs about coal mining, but mostly Breiding did a great job writing his own collection.
The Traditional Songs
There are only two songs on this disc taken from the Appalachian coal mining songbook. "Red Haired Boy" is a terrific performance of the classic Irish fiddle tune. For it, he recruited members of the Short Crick Flatpickers (a local bluegrass band), and the performance is exquisite.
The other track not composed by Breiding is "The Singing Coal Miner," which is actually an archival recording from WSAZ-TV News in Huntington, WV. It's a nice little reminder that the stories told on this album actually happened to real people.
Breiding's Original Songs
Tom Breiding clearly has been very touched by the history of coal mining in West Virginia. This album doesn't just serve as a remarkable tribute to the history and labor issues through which that community has struggled. It also does an exquisite job of telling the people's history of the West Virginia coalfields.
Breiding has an excellent natural empathy and is able to tell these stories through the eyes of the miners without sounding at all forced. When he sings about the struggles of the miners, his voice embodies the range of emotions tied to the craft: frustration, exhaustion, fear, anger, dedication and submission.
Highlights and the Bottom Line
"My Father's Clothes" is a wonderful tune recounting the feeling of inheriting coal mining as a family business. "The Longest Darkest Day" tells a first-hand account of the story of the Buffalo Creek disaster, when the area flooded.
"The Bull Moose Special," one of the album's strongest songs, tells about a specific strike during which a miner was killed and Mother Jones helped to organize the miners. "Union Miner" is another highlight of the disc, announcing the dichotomous pride and frustration that comes with being a union miner.
Breiding is a fantastic songwriter, and an even more gifted performer. Despite the fact that he's singing more from the third-person, paying tribute to this history, there is nothing lost in the recounting of these stories. His lyrics are honest and empathic, and the instrumentation is outstanding. This is an excellent musical introduction to the plight of the Appalachian coal miner, and a wonderful addition to the coal mining songbook.
Dirty Linen Magazine June/July 2008 Issue by Susan Hartman (Baltimore, MD)
West Virginia native, Tom Breiding is a singer/songwriter who now lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he is very active in the local folk community. Breiding is adept at guitar and Dobro and ably supported by local musicians on bluegrass instruments, but it is the strength of the songwriting on this CD that makes the biggest impression. Nine original songs impart the stories of miners and their families and give evidence of some ot the human costs of mining coal. In the informative liner notes, Breiding cites the historic events that inspired these songs. The 1912 strike that sent miners and their families out of company homes to live in tents alongside Paint Creek in Kanawha County (central West Virginia) and led to martial law and a massacre, as described in "The Bull Moose Special"; the straight-forward and tragic obituary of Joe Fry, who "deceased this life of 27 years...Married 10 days short of their first year" in the 1930's; and "The Longest Darkest Day," which gives an account of a mining disaster at Buffalo Creek in 1972 when black water from the slate dams broke through and flooded the valley in West Virginia, killing 118 people and leaving thousands homeless. Other songs address more generalized issues about earning a living in the mines, such as the unending poverty, danger, and dependency on the company for one's own home. ("It's hard to see beyond tomorrow/When you're living for today/In desperate times it's just survival/I'll tell you, sir, it's always been that way.") The Short Creek Flatpickers, a West Virginia bluegrass band, contribute an energetic instrumental offering, the traditional "The Red Haired Boy." Breiding's own composition "The House We Called Home" is likely to become a new folk standard.
Sing Out Magazine Autumn 2008 Vol. 52 No. 3 by Rich Warren
The repertoire of coal mining songs was growing a little dusty with Merle Travis and Billy Edd Wheeler having left the field. Tom Breiding steps into the breach with eight new original coal mining songs, along with a couple of traditionals and an instrumental for good measure. Breiding covers the entire range of mining, from songs about the disasters ("The Longest Darkest Day" and "Obituary Of Joe Fry," penned by a miner dying in the mine), to labor struggles ("Union Miner," "My Father's Clothes," and "The Bull Moose Special"), along with jobs above ground ("The Breaker") as well as below. He narrates family struggles against the coal companies in "The House We Called Home" and "The Unbroken Circle." The former, sung as a duet with Andrea Pearl, is an old-fashioned country song telling of the company's effort to evict organizing miners from their homes. The songs are based on actual events and Breiding's family history. Though all these songs are copyrighted, you'd assume they were in the tradition. He infuses them with the flavor of West Virginia music. This is an all-acoustic CD with a mildly bluegrass base of guitar, banjo, Dobro, bass, fiddle, mandolin and harmonica. (Breiding switches between the guitar, banjo and Dobro.) A few other musicians contribute throughout the album, most of them playing on the traditional instrumental "The Red Haired Boy." With this accompaniment, the music and the words sound authentic. I suspect some of these songs will slip into the repertoire of others and make their way into the tradition. In an age of too many love songs, it's a joy to hear a talented artist focus on an aspect of America often neglected. Breiding does a service to miners and his listeners. And remember, most of your CD players are still powered by coal.
Pittsburgh Tribune Review - September 23, 2007
By Regis Behe - TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Decades of history inspire Tom Breiding's new CD
LOGAN COUNTY, W.Va. -- Tom Breiding is standing on the eastern slope of Blair Mountain beneath a canopy of magnolia, poplar, beech and oak trees.
He has come here on this sun-splashed September day with Kenny King, an amateur historian who lives in Logan County and also works in the coal industry, seeking affirmation for a project he's been working on for eight years. Breiding is about to release "The Unbroken Circle: Songs of the West Virginia Coalfields." While he is a native West Virginian -- born in Wheeling -- he has visited this part of "Almost Heaven" only a few times. Now a resident of McMurray, Washington County, he has reservations about a project that spans seven decades of West Virginia history. "These are things I read about and wrote about, and now I'm here," says Breiding as King, wielding a metal detector, unearths 30.06 shotgun shells. The metal casings are reminders that 86 years ago, the Battle of Blair Mountain was fought between 10,000 miners seeking union rights and 16,000 state policemen, deputies and militiamen hired by the coal-mining companies. In this part of the Mountain State, the confrontation remains an epic event, a reminder of the deep divide between the working man and the coal companies. Now, with mountaintop removal mining prevalent in Logan County, activists and miners are once again wary of what is transpiring. "I have nothing against mining," King says. "It's just the way they're doing it." This is the backdrop for Breiding's work, which includes the songs "Union Miner," "The Bull Moose Special" and "The Longest Darkest Day," an account of the Buffalo Creek flood in 1972, caused when a mine's gob pile dam collapsed. He says the CD is not a political statement but part of his mission as a storyteller. "The state motto, right on the flag, is 'Mountaineers Are Always Free,'" Breiding says. "I feel a connection with everybody who comes from the state of West Virginia. That was part of the inspiration. And part of the inspiration is the rebellious side of things. These miners who were called on to take action (at the Battle of Blair Mountain) had to stand up for themselves to do something about their conditions." "The Unbroken Circle" is colored by bluegrass -- or, as Breiding calls it, "old-timey" music -- a departure from the rock 'n' roll that has dominated his previous releases. And so, Breiding has come to Logan County to road-test these songs, to see if his artistic vision measures up with a reality he is acquainted with but does not really know.
Keeping the record straight
Roger Bryant knows a little bit about music and Logan County history. His grandmother was Aunt Jennie Wilson, a revered figure in Appalachian folk music circles. Bryant has had a few hit songs -- including "There Ain't Enough Whiskey in Tennessee to Drink the Ugly Off of You" -- and has shared stages with Tom T. Hall, Tammy Wynette, Kathy Mattea and Kris Kristofferson. Most notably, Bryant's song "Stop the Flow of Coal," released in the mid-1970s, earned him national attention including an appearance on NBC's "Today." So it's with a bit of trepidation that Breiding launches into "Union Miner" in Bryant's office at Logan Country Emergency Services, where Bryant serves as executive director. Bryant listens intently as Breiding sings about a World War I veteran who feels disenfranchised because he has joined a union. "Nice piece," Bryant says when Breiding has finished. "You've got it all in there." Bryant says "Union Miner" and songs like it are important because they crystallize events that tend to fade as years pass. "As the World War II vets die off, so does the real history, the real truth of World War II," Bryant says. "I think a lot of that is true of Blair Mountain. As those folks die off, the real history and truth of the Blair Mountain battle dies with them. Maybe that's good, maybe that's bad, but it's the natural order of things. "It's up to people like you and me to keep that alive so we don't repeat the same mistakes we made in the past. And if you go back and look, music is the only thing that keeps a lot of events alive."
Heart of West Virginia
A one-lane concrete bridge, the remnant of a 1938 WPA project, leads to Sunbeam, a small unincorporated community in Logan County. There are many sites like Sunbeam sprinkled throughout the region, with names such as Red Campbell, Freeze Fork, Justice Addition, Rum Junction and Superior Bottom, small communities that are the remnants of mining camps. This is where King lives with his mother, Christine, in a small, well-appointed trailer filled with curios and knickknacks. There's a sense of warmth and welcoming that exudes from Christine King, 72, as she greets her visitors with stories about growing up in a log cabin in nearby Lincoln County. "My great uncle had six boys, and he played music and they all played," she says. "They would gather up at our house, out in the country, on Saturday nights, and there'd be music all night." Other than a battery-powered radio, these gatherings were the family's main form of entertainment. Now Christine King is being asked to listen to "The Obituary of Joe Fry," a song Breiding wrote after discovering the death notice of a miner who died in a Macbeth Mine explosion of 1937.
- Left to mourn, a host of friends and kin
- and Violet, his beloved darling dear
- She might meet him over there, for this poor Violet prays
- He planned to be a Christian someday
Christine King pays rapt attention throughout Breiding's performance, locked onto every lyric and note. Yes, she says, Breiding would have fit in with her family years ago. "Every Saturday night, we'd have music," she says. "One would play fiddle, one would play banjo, and my grandmother would play harmonica, and my mother would play the guitar." Her voice fades. Something has been brought back to her this day.
Paying history a visit Breiding spends the rest of the afternoon with Kenny King.
They travel to the top of Lowe Mountain, where coal companies are transforming verdant green foliage into a lunar landscape. They take the same path the union miners walked on Blair Mountain, uncovering artifacts every dozen paces or so. They pause at the gap on Blair Mountain where the coal mining forces fired on the union miners, who dove for cover from the assault of rifles and machine guns. Everything Breiding tried to portray on "The Unbroken Circle" has become real and tangible in the space of a few hours. His instincts, his trust in the material, have been affirmed."I realized I had to show a lot of respect for the people who live here and experienced these things," he says. "I tried to bring some humility to the project, in my whole approach to marketing it and sharing it with others." Carol Warren, a project coordinator with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, thinks Breiding might succeed in doing more than that. "If we really don't understand where we've been, it's hard to understand where we are in the present," Warren says. "The coal industry and the lives of the people here have been intertwined for a long time. I think it's important for people to remember the way it goes together, the ups and the downs of an industry that have affected people's lives for a long time." And continues to affect people's lives.The emotions, the heartbreak of the Battle of Blair Mountain, of the Macbeth Mine explosion of 1937, of the Buffalo Creek disaster of 1972, all of which Breiding taps into, are revisited upon each generation. Witness what happened at the Sago Mine in January 2006, when 12 men lost their lives, or at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah, where six miners were never found and three rescuers died in August. As Breiding sings in "The Unbroken Circle":
- It's hard to see beyond tomorrow
- when you're living for today
- In desperate times it's just survival,
- I'll tell you, sir, it's always been that way.
Regis Behe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7990