Given the complementary nature of their folk inspirations, the Kentucky bonds that link their lives and the topical cause that ignites their work, it's a wonder that Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore didn't sense some measure of artistic kinship before now.
Listen to the 11 songs that make up their pending album Dear Companion, and you would swear that the vocal and instrumental harmony at play had to have been made by siblings with a devout Appalachian allegiance. The music is learned, soulful and, most of all, intuitive. But Sollee and Moore aren't brothers — not biologically, anyway.
"We met on MySpace, believe it or not," Lexington-bred, Louisville-schooled cellist Sollee said almost sheepishly. "I was just sort of cruising around MySpace."
"It was the marvel of modern technology, I suppose," said Moore, who is from Cold Spring in Northern Kentucky. "I had a song, a demo that was kind of like a home recording called Flyrock Blues (which would become a cornerstone tune of Dear Companion) and put it on MySpace. I have no idea how Ben found it. But he did. He sent me an e-mail saying, 'Hey, we're sort of working on the same stuff here. We should get together.'"
"Ultimately, it was the issue that brought us together," Sollee said.
The "issue" was mountaintop-removal mining, or MTR. It's a form of mining that blasts hundreds of feet off the tops of mountains to get to the coal inside. Although sites are required by law to be reclaimed after mining is complete, the mountain areas often remain barren, broken and deforested.
Mountaintop- removal mining has long been prevalent in Appalachia. But in recent years, environmentalists, writers and, yes, musicians have become increasingly vocal about its effect on the Kentucky landscape. It's to that chorus than Dear Companion joins in and in that cause that a musical partnership between Sollee and Moore took root.
Different musical worlds
The album won't be released until mid-February on the veteran Seattle indie label Sub Pop, but the duo will showcase its songs at Monday's taping of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Also on the program will be a longtime opponent of mountaintop-removal mining, Kentucky author and playwright Silas House.
"Ben and I met up at CD Central, where I was doing an in-store performance," Moore said. "I played a few songs, and then we went to get a cup of coffee and talked about music and all the things we were thinking in regards to mountaintop removal. It's something we're both mortified by. So we sort of bonded over that."
"We're significantly different musicians," Sollee said. "He's the guy who played guitar in his bedroom. I'm the guy who was in school all the time. We're coming from two different sides of the musical world, but we're united by this whole idea that we're Kentucky boys that have grown up with MTR in their back yard."
Recorded in part at Duane Lundy's Shangri-la studio in Lexington, Dear Companion relies heavily on the chamber-style colors of Sollee's cello playing and the often plaintive guitar/vocal accent of Moore's songs. The album then digs deeply into notions of harmony that are ripe with rootsy expectation (as in the way their voices blend with Louvin Brothers-like ease on My Wealth Comes to Me) and novel distinction (on the album-closing It Won't Be Long, in which Moore's singing companion is the eerily human tone of Sollee's cello).
But another Kentucky voice played a role in bringing Dear Companion to life. Handling production duties was a Louisvillian credited as "Yim Yames." He is better known to the rock 'n' roll world as Jim James, frontman for My Morning Jacket.
"Jim and I met through the Louisville music scene," Sollee said. "We were both pretty upset about MTR. So, again, it was the issue that brought this whole project together. All of the musical collaborations grew from there.
"A great producer takes in the full spectrum of possibilities," Moore said. "Jim's musical imagination knows no bounds. He always has a good idea. Plus, any time you get artists together who like each other personally and can still blend musically, it's great."
A letter to the country
Perhaps the defining moment of Dear Companion is its title tune. Sollee and Moore wrote the song together after reading Ronald Eller's book Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945.
"It's a history of industry and the many changes that have befallen the region," Moore said. "One of the images in the book is a handwritten letter by a miner who was trapped in one of the coal mines. He was writing a letter to his family that he knows he is never going to see again. It's sad and very poignant.
"So we wrote Dear Companion as kind of a letter from Central Appalachia to the rest of the country, saying, 'We're being destroyed. Are you paying attention?' We took the tune to Jim, who added this sort of half-time rock percussion and drums. Once he did that, the song just became its own little world."
Still, Dear Companion doesn't come off as a fist-in-the-air protest record. It states its case on mountaintop removal by embracing the kind of soulful, folk-fortified music that is as prevalent in Appalachia as coal itself.
"This is probably the most important record that either of us will ever release," Moore said. "Certainly it is as far as its intent is concerned. We're really hoping to spark a dialogue so people can learn more about MTR and what it's doing to Kentucky. We're going to set aside as much time for touring with the record as we can. As long as there is still interest, we'll keep touring and singing these songs.
"This is a project that has our full attention."