Have You Ever Felt So Empty?

Album cover for Passing Thru the Garden by Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens (JA 001).

The thing about depression is it doesn’t get better. It ebbs and it flows, you learn how to cope or you don’t, but it’s always there. I don’t want to talk about it with metaphors and shit. I don’t even want to write this. If you follow this blog, you already know I haven’t felt much like writing for a while. It happens.

Grief is cumulative. The losses pile up. At some point it’s too much to bear. Until then, all you can do is try and carry it into whatever remains of the future. That future feels pretty small these days, the path awful narrow. We’re all on this precipice together.

Mountain music has always been a comfort to me. It’s a sound I turn to when I miss my grandma, who grew up just down the road from legends like Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham. Over the years, it’s become the soundtrack to my grief, a path back to places where I can never really return, and a practice of solidarity with the ghosts who linger there.

Lately I’ve been listening to Phyllis Boyens. If you’ve ever seen Coal Miner’s Daughter, you might recognize her from her role as Loretta Lynn’s mom, Clara Webb. Unlike Loretta, Phyllis Boyens never got a big record deal. As far as I know, she only ever recorded two albums.

Passing Thru the Garden (1976) is a collaboration between Phyllis Boyens and her father, Nimrod Workman, for June Appal Recordings. It’s a loose collection of Appalachian folk songs, bluegrass, traditional ballads, and originals. Stand out tracks include Boyens’ haunting rendition of Oh Death (which she would perform as a duet with her father in the 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA) and the Nimrod Workman original Forty-Two Years. Workman was a coal miner, union organizer, and a veteran of the Battle of Blair Mountain, and he sings here about his own experiences of contracting black lung and being subsequently laid off.

I Really Care (1983) is all Phyllis, a mix of country and bluegrass tunes, with the latter featuring the Johnson Mountain Boys. It’s got about half originals, a few traditionals, and my personal favorite version of Si Kahn’s Truck Drivin’ Woman. This record is so good. I’m sorry I can’t link to a higher quality version, but I’m sure y’all know in your souls where to seek it out.

In addition to these two records, Phyllis Boyens recorded three tracks for the 1984 Rounder Records compilation They’ll Never Keep Us Down: Women’s Coal Mining Songs. This one was re-released on CD in 1997 under the title Coal Mining Women, which is the version you’re more likely to find. It’s a great comp, featuring Hazel Dickens, Sarah Gunning, Florence Reece, and The Reel World String Band in addition to Boyens’ own contributions. If the Hazel Dickens and Sarah Gunning tracks seem familiar, it’s because they were recycled from an earlier Rounder Records compilation titled Come All You Coal Miners (1973). If you’re new to this music, it’s all worth checking out.