Alan Jackson pays tribute to victims of coal mining disaster at W.Va. concert

Alan Jackson pays tribute to victims of coal mining disaster at W.Va. concert

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010; C01

CHARLESTON, W.VA. -- At a towering 6-foot-4, Alan Jackson takes the stage in long, cool strides, tasked with the impossible: make heavy hearts light.

The multi-platinum country superstar has been on the road for over a month, but Saturday's appearance at the Charleston Civic Center is his toughest date on this tour -- a benefit concert for the families of the miners who died or were injured in the April 5 explosion in Montcoal.

More than 8,000 fans have gathered to see Jackson, with all of the evening's profits going to the miners' families via the Montcoal Mining Disaster Fund. Also in the audience: 27 families afflicted by the catastrophe -- two related to those injured and 25 related to those who died at the Upper Big Branch Mine, about an hour south of Charleston.

Just moments before his performance, Jackson met with each family, doling out handshakes, hugs and encouraging words. Now he's onstage, a reassuring smile peeking out from beneath his rusty red mustache and a baritone that has always felt both comforting and reliable. On this night, it needs to.

* * *

Two hours before showtime, a sweet breeze is blowing in from the nearby Kanawha River. Local radio station WQBE has set up a booth near the Civic Center box office and they're blasting Jackson's honky-tonk hit "Don't Rock the Jukebox" over a small PA system. A man in a rabbit suit -- the station's mascot -- unsuccessfully tries to snare passersby for snapshots.

Fans stream through the gates sporting cowboy boots and flip-flops, Levi's jeans and cargo shorts, plaid button-ups and West Virginia University football jerseys.

Many wear T-shirts honoring loved ones who died at Upper Big Branch.

White block letters adorn black cotton: "IN OUR PRAYERS . . . IN GOD'S HANDS."

Black cursive on heather gray: "Pray for our miners."

Curling script airbrushed on white: "They dance with Jesus now."

Ask them if they'd like to talk and there are no words. Teeth bite down on lips. Heads shake. This is a community not only stricken with grief, but exhausted by an unwelcome crush of media attention. This night is supposed to be an escape.

Jaci Barker didn't lose a loved one on April 5, but her "entire family" worked in the mining industry, including her late husband. She thinks Jackson's support for the community is one step in a long recovery. "Time heals all wounds," she says. "It's supposed to, anyway."

Garnet Marcum is picking up her tickets at the box office. She's surrounded by family members clad in T-shirts memorializing her late father, Upper Big Branch miner Joe Marcum. "It's wonderful," she says of Jackson's gesture -- then quickly steers her family toward a waiting area outside the singer's tour bus.

Jackson is still on board, perched on a leather couch in a white Stetson and a faded Polo. He says he decided to make his already-scheduled Charleston gig a benefit for the miners' families immediately after news of the tragedy broke. "That line of work is hard enough," he says.

Jackson comes from a working-class background -- his father was a mechanic during the singer's childhood in Newnan, Ga. -- and says he empathizes with his fans, but he hopes the evening won't feel too solemn.

"I think people want to have a good time and enjoy the show," he says. "We'll have a moment [during the concert] to recognize what this is all about, but for the most part, I'm here to entertain."

Moments later, he bounds off the bus to greet the families and pose for photos. They enter a large tent in clusters of three, four, five. Spouses. Siblings. Parents. Children. "Alan, this is the Atkins family," says Jackson's publicist.

"Ready, guys?" the photographer asks. "1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . ." Amid the bright flashes, Jackson offers soft words. So much to say and barely any time to say it.

"Alan, this is the Mullins family."

The Jones family. The Workman family. The Griffith family. The Davis family. Names we've heard in the news, lining up, one after another. They shake Jackson's hand, hug him, slip memorial bracelets around his wrist and ask him to sign autographs. Wielding a Sharpie and a smile, he's quick to put his long arms around their shoulders. "Glad y'all can be here," he says.

The camera keeps flashing, capturing expressions of grief, pride, weariness, momentary relief.

"Ready, guys? 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . .''

Celebrating lives

Fifteen minutes later, Jackson is onstage, addressing the crowd in that soft, honeyed drawl. "I think country music is probably the perfect music," he says to joyful cheers. "It's music about life. . . . We're here to honor the ones that we lost or were injured and we're gonna celebrate their lives with some music."

His singing feels like a balm and his lyrics feel like a rallying cry. "You can break the back, but you can't break the spirit of a small-town Southern man," he sings, sending a quick jolt of triumphant applause across the arena.

Halfway through the show, the singer introduces his steel guitarist, Robbie Flint, a native of neighboring Sylvester, W.Va. Flint launches into a solo rendition of "Coalwood," a song from the soundtrack of "October Sky," a 1999 film about a coal miner's son.

On two large video screens, photographs of the miners who perished at Upper Big Branch fade in and out. Pockets of the Civic Center erupt in cheers when each new face appears.

But true to his word, Jackson keeps the rest of the proceedings upbeat, sauntering across the stage, tossing guitar picks into the crowd like he's flipping coins into a fountain.

Toward the end of the two-hour set, the crowd lets loose to Jackson's most rollicking hit, "Chattahoochee," an anthem about coming of age in Georgia near the Chattahoochee River.

Skinny women shimmy along in their tight clothes and big men sing along with their big lungs. For a West Virginia river city still deep in mourning, it's a breath of relief as refreshing as that spring breeze blowing off the Kanawha.

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