There are a couple of lines from my favorite song of this century that go like this:
“Where the sun comes up about ten in the morning
And the sun goes down about three in the day”
The song, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” has been covered by several big time country music artists, but none of the others come remotely close to the rendition by Patty Loveless.
Written and first performed by Darrell Scott, a Hoosier who traces his ancestry to the “deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky”, the song is a haunting ballad about isolation, survival and limited means to escape from a region that found itself literally captured and enslaved by the coal industry.
As ballads go, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” is neither the first nor last song to stir up some controversy when it comes to differences of opinion between the folks who still live there and those who have moved away. To be perfectly honest, it does take on a generous dose of poetic license but the overall sentiment is, in this writer’s opinion, spot on.
Her capture of that deep emotion is precisely what makes Patty’s rendition so heads and shoulders better than the others.
A native of Pike County, Patty Ramey Loveless was 12 years old when her family moved to Louisville in 1969. Her dad needed to take better advantage of his health care than he could find in the hills. Suffering, like thousands of other miners, from a terrible disease caused by too many years of breathing coal dust in the underground mines where he made his living, Mr. Ramey ultimately succumbed to the ravages of black lung in 1979.
I strongly suspect that Patty’s plaintive protest, which resonates throughout the song, is as much a mournful eulogy for her dad as it is for any of the other deeply seated emotions that the song evokes.
For me, that emotion results in a long series of cold shivers, running up and down both arms, every time I hear the song.
While the song’s genre is not what I would call pure bluegrass, the instrumentation is. Label the sound whatever you wish to call it, but it will still come across as very uniquely eastern Kentucky.
If you have access to a computer or any of the other devices that will allow you to access You- Tube, I urge you to listen to Patty Loveless sing “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” While you’re at it, compare Patty’s version to the original one by Darrell Scott, as well as Montgomery Gentry, Brad Paisley, Kathy Mattea or any of the other performers you may find covering the song. Then see who gives you cold shivers.
In the meantime, I keep finding myself going back to “the sun coming up about ten in the morning and the going down about three in the day.”
Please recall that I did mention the songwriter’s propensity to make full use of his poetic license. On the other hand, he may not be that far off if he’s talking about late October, just before they switch back to “slow time” in the head of Blair Branch.
Uncle Stevie Craft used to say that this fast-time/slow-time business was total foolishness. He set his railroad pocket watch by the “right time” and that’s where it stayed year round. More than once, other people, in his household found themselves late to work because Uncle Stevie had set the kitchen clock back an hour to keep it synced with his watch. I’m reasonably sure, however, that the sun never came up at ten and set at three on Uncle Stevie’s time. And, as usual, I don’t know why I told you that.
On the other hand I find myself reminiscing about the fact that the sun does, in fact rise a lot later and set a lot sooner deep in the hollers of eastern Kentucky than it does here in the flatlands. Now that we are hitting daily high temperatures in the nineties here on Charlie Brown Road, I find myself yearning for the two or three extra hours of shade that would come in handy if I was tending a garden in the head of Blair Branch.