By Matt Wickstrom and Saraya Brewer, Smiley Pete Publishing
PINE MOUNTAIN, Ky. — Nearly a decade after teaming up with cellist Ben Sollee and songwriter/producer Jim James on “Dear Companion,” a protest album (albeit a peaceful one) denouncing mountaintop removal, Kentucky songwriter Daniel Martin Moore is back with a new arts-meets-conservation effort – and one of his most ambitious projects to date.
This time around, Moore has partnered with conservation-based nonprofit Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, Eastern Kentucky experiential education center Pine Mountain Settlement School and a few dozen of his musical friends to produce a double album titled “Pine Mountain Sessions.” Recorded at a century-old chapel on the grounds of Pine Mountain Settlement School, the album is essentially a love letter to one of Appalachia’s most biologically significant mountain ridges and a tribute to the organizations that are working to protect it.
An expansive natural corridor spanning more than 125 miles through Eastern Kentucky and surrounding states, Pine Mountain provides a critical refuge for a variety of unique plant and animal species, some of which are not found anywhere else on the planet. Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, an organization founded in 1995 to aid in the preservation and protection of the region’s rich biodiversity, has negotiated the purchase of thousands of acres of the mountain over the past two decades to help preserve and protect it.
Greg Abernathy, executive director of the Kentucky Natural Land Trust, has long been aware of the almost transcendent quality the area possesses, and in 2014, he entered into conversations with Transylvania University art professor Zoe Strecker and University of Kentucky English professor Erik Reese about how KNLT could better engage the creative community with its conservation efforts. Sprouting from those conversations came the idea to host weekend-long artist retreats at the Pine Mountain Settlement School. The idea was to create an immersive weekend experience that would potentially yield creative outcomes for artists and also work to elevate the Kentucky Natural Land Trust’s work to protect Pine Mountain’s wildlands.
Moore was among the artists who participated in one of the first retreats, in the fall of 2015. During his experience at the Settlement School, he quickly acquired a fondness for not only KNLT and Pine Mountain Settlement School but also the picturesque grounds of the school, taking a special liking to a small stone chapel on the property. Moore ended up returning to the peaceful venue several times on his own volition following the retreat, to write and center himself, but it was a 2017 visit on his birthday that set in motion the making of the “Pine Mountain Sessions.”
Sitting down at a piano inside the chapel, Moore was clinking away until the idea came upon him to record in the storied room. Having become close with Abernathy through his prior time at the retreat, Moore eventually proposed the idea of enlisting an army of his musical companions to record a project in the room. Later that fall, recording for the “Pine Mountain Sessions” began.
The project, which is set for release in late June or early July, pulls together a staggering 44 artists from across the spectrums of spoken word, poetry, short stories and music on a massive double LP. The physical album features a “who’s who” of Kentucky-based artists, including musicians Carl Broemel and Jim James (both of My Morning Jacket), Ben Sollee, Joan Shelley, Rachel Grimes and Warren Byrom, as well as authors Wendell Berry, Silas House, Rebecca Gayle Howell, Ada Limòn and others. Proceeds from the album will benefit both the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust and the Pine Mountain Settlement School.
Despite the logistics of creating an adequate recording space and coordinating all of the planned guests, Moore’s setup was relatively simple, using two room microphones along with smaller ones for instrumentals and vocals. Still, the constant shuffling in and out of guests made the project a challenge at times to keep on top of.
“A big studio record may have 12 or 15 musicians playing on it throughout,” said Moore. “This has 44 different artists, many of whom are bands with multiple members.”
The album was recorded in three- and four-day stints over the course of a year, with Moore playing host of sorts to the cast of guest artists who came through to record. It took four of these sessions to complete the recording process, with 25 tracks making it onto the final LP, which has each of its sides aptly named after the seasons. In addition to the tracks making up the physical editions of the album, another 19 tracks featuring a host of additional artists will be available as digital downloads.
Nearly all of the tracks recorded for “Pine Mountain Sessions” were exclusive to the project, with some even coming to life – or taking on a new life of their own – during their time being tracked atop the mountain. For Louisville duo The Other Years “Chapel on Pine Mountain” the song was written during the band’s time at the Settlement School, gaining its name from the chapel they recorded within. Other special collaborations on the project include Louisville musician Nathan Salsburg playing guitar on Warren Byrom’s “Black Mountain Dogs” and Moore and others contributing backing vocals on Broemel’s “Moonbeam.”
While Moore jokes that this album “is not one that you’ll put on to enjoy at a party,” he remains serious and steadfast in his commitment to the work Kentucky Natural Lands Trust is doing to preserve Kentucky’s irreplaceable natural resources. He hopes the recordings will shine a light on the organization and the important work it’s doing to preserve Kentucky’s natural wildlands.
“What [they] do works no matter who the governor is or who’s running the EPA,” said Moore. “It takes the coal company’s approach and turns it on its head. Where coal companies feel they can buy up mountains and wildlands to mine, the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust can buy part of a mountain to protect and just let it be, nurturing the forest.”
For more information on the album, visit www.pinemountainsessions.com.