“Sycamores with Excavator,” by Ray Kleinhelter. Courtesy of Galerie Hertz and Geoff Carr Photography, Louisville, Kentucky
By John Thomason
Over Labor Day weekend last year I called a distant cousin, Mitch Cundiff, to ask if he could take me to Paradise. The old town is just a few miles from his home in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, where my grandmother grew up. He told me he was happy to, but there was nothing there to see. “It’s like the John Prine song says,” he explained. “They hauled it away.”
I knew the song, so Mitch didn’t have to tell me that “they” referred to Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company in the world and Mitch’s employer for the better part of a decade in the seventies and early eighties. Paradise was once an idyllic riverside hub—Prine called it “a real Disney-looking town”—with little besides a general store, a post office, and a landing for the Green River ferry. But in 1963, the Tennessee Valley Authority opened a massive steam power plant close by, and residents started moving away as black soot from the smokestacks began to coat the entire town. The TVA bought out the last municipal buildings in 1967, bulldozing them to expand what would soon be the largest coal-fired power plant in the world. In other words, it was the TVA that actually “hauled” Paradise away. But they couldn’t have done it without Peabody’s coal, so it’s with some justified creative license that Prine blames that company for the town’s fate in his song’s famous chorus:
And Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.
Mitch was barely a teenager when Prine was discovered by Kris Kristofferson and Roger Ebert at open mic nights in Chicago, quit his day job as a mailman, and recorded “Paradise” for his 1971 debut album. And Mitch wasn’t aware of the song when he went to work in Peabody’s mines just out of high school. But by then Prine’s rising star had caught the company’s eye, if not its workers’. (A displaced Paradise resident once claimed that Peabody successfully petitioned local radio stations to embargo the song.) In 1973, Peabody distributed a pamphlet that declared, “Indirectly, we probably helped supply the energy to make that recording that falsely names us as ‘hauling away’ Paradise, Kentucky.” They titled it “Facts vs. Prine.”
The company’s complaint was petty, given that Peabody’s rapid growth in the mid-twentieth century would be in no way hindered by the objections of an obscure singer-songwriter. Thanks to its long-term contract with TVA Paradise, Peabody enjoyed a massive guaranteed market, low transportation costs, and easy access to thousands of acres of rich coal deposits for decades. Muhlenberg County at that time was the top coal-producing county in the United States, a distinction manifest in Peabody’s enormous profits.
Nor can Prine’s agitating be said to have harmed the company’s local reputation. “Back then, Peabody was a star,” Mitch remembered. Unlike many Appalachian coal communities, Muhlenberg County, in Western Kentucky, doesn’t have much of a history of labor unrest. By the time the major operators set up shop in the 1960s, they had already negotiated generous contracts with the United Mine Workers of America, Mitch said. When he started working, there wasn’t a single nonunion mine in the county. (UMWA representatives were unable to confirm this.)
Four decades later, just as Mitch was retiring from a long and relatively lucrative career with Peabody and later TVA—and just as Kentucky’s last remaining union mine was shuttered—the coal industry had fallen from grace and Peabody again found itself irked by Prine’s quiet lament. In 2015, an activist couple sued the company for allegedly ordering their arrest at a demonstration, and they appended the chorus to “Paradise” at the top of their complaint. In an unusual move, Peabody lawyers filed a fifteen-page motion asking the judge to strike the lyrics from the suit. The motion accused the plaintiffs of “attempting to shame Peabody and attack the energy industry by citing song lyrics that tarnish Peabody’s name.”
If Peabody’s name has been tarnished recently, it has little to do with John Prine. The company’s woes—the utter collapse of its stock, its controversial attempts to discharge its health and pension obligations to retired miners, and a New York attorney general’s finding that it withheld information from investors—culminated in bankruptcy proceedings that began in April 2016. (Peabody emerged from Chapter 11 protection earlier this year.) Prine, for his part, did not appear to celebrate the company’s decline: “I take no delight in anybody’s misfortune,” read a statement he gave to VICE News. “I just hope the workers and their families will be taken care of.”
Most Saturdays growing up in nearby Bowling Green, my mother was shaken awake for the drive back to her mother’s childhood home in Muhlenberg County. She dreaded this disruption of her weekend, but my grandmother, Carolyn Cundiff, believed in frequent homecomings—this despite the fact that she considered her own departure from Muhlenberg County something of an escape. Carolyn was the academic standout of the eight Cundiff children, and she became a nurse and built a middle-class life. The redbrick, ranch-style house she bought was just two counties over from where she grew up, but it felt worlds removed from her transient childhood of dirt floors, seasonal farm work, and coal. My own mother fled much farther, moving to North Carolina after college and returning only occasionally, out of a sense of obligation and the knotted, unspoken love that families know well.
This did not diminish the palpable sense of homecoming last September when she and I pulled up to Mitch’s house, just outside of Central City. Mitch is a tanned and sturdy man with a formidable goatee; he exudes a kind of probity that made his Saturday clothes—Harley-Davidson t-shirt and athletic shorts—seem downright professional. Despite not having seen each other for a decade or more, he and my mother embraced warmly. “Where did all that gray hair come from?” Mitch asked with a smile. My mother laughed and pointedly did not ask him the same question.
As we drove around the county in the lingering heat of late summer, we all relished his ability to show me the land from which my maternal family hails. He took us to my grandmother’s childhood home by the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, where Merle Travis is buried alongside a few of our relatives. We shared stories about the older generations: My grandmother’s brother and Mitch’s father, John Wayne Cundiff, was the youngest of the eight siblings, which meant he was left with whatever unappetizing parts of the chicken were left over after the older kids had had their share at supper. “Ass and lips,” Mitch remembered him saying—the only curse word John Wayne uttered in his entire life. Stories like these, which gesture to the poverty of an older generation of Cundiffs, could be funny to us now largely because Muhlenberg County’s mines had enabled upward mobility. The comfortable lives that Mitch and I enjoy are evidence of this.
When I asked Mitch what could replace coal as the local economy’s pillar, his tone became more severe: “Nothing.” The number of coal miners employed in Muhlenberg County declined by a staggering 73% from the early days of Mitch’s career in 1977 to 2008. Then, in 2011, new EPA emission regulations saddled the Paradise plant with over $800 million in compliance costs. Rather than invest this money only to face additional coal regulations down the line, the TVA elected to simply replace two coal-fired units with a natural gas facility for just over $1 billion. The move was a nail in the coffin for coal mining in Muhlenberg County. There were eight active coal mines in the county less than ten years ago. Now there are two.
When Mitch graduated from high school, mining was virtually the only option available to the large majority of men who weren’t attending college. “Around here, unless you went to work in the coal mines, you didn’t have a job,” Sandra Bruce, who grew up in Paradise before the TVA buy-out, told a local oral history project. This has been true for generations. Of my three great-uncles, the only one who didn’t make his living in or around the mines was Billy, a preacher. (The other two, including Mitch’s father, worked for Peabody.) Today, there is no employer in the county who can offer high school graduates the kind of career that had been available to their fathers through union contracts with Peabody and other major operators.
This is not to lionize Peabody, which by most measures was a poor steward of Muhlenberg County. The company made liberal use of an obscure nineteenth-century Kentucky statute giving mine operators the right to condemn private property for use in transporting coal, devastating farmers and landowners. (Local magistrates who signed off on these orders allegedly received company payments.) In the early 1970s, Peabody was cited over a hundred times for failing to meet Kentucky’s modest land reclamation standards, taking advantage of an enforcement program that a Division of Reclamation official at the time admitted was “just nil.” In 1978, soil conservationists estimated that up to fifty thousand acres—almost one-sixth of the county—were destroyed by strip mining. (Peabody would not comment on its past activities in Muhlenberg County and wrote to me that “stewardship of the environment has always been core to the way Peabody operates.”)
Hardly any of this is immediately visible to a visitor like me, touring Muhlenberg County only on its main roads, through the quaint downtowns of Greenville and Central City and the lush, hilly forests that line the country highways. Most of the signs of the adverse effects of heavy industry, Mitch suggests, are not visible but instead manifest themselves bodily. “I could name you seven retired [TVA] electricians that all died of cancer,” he told me. But every so often, when the forests opened up to the occasional tract of farmland, I could see what looked like skyscrapers peeking over the hills in the distance, emitting ominous plumes of exhaust. Among these were the two eighty-story coal-fired units that will be torn down to retrofit the plant for natural gas. As we drove closer to the plant, Mitch told me another story. “There are legends where TVA has transferred people from East Tennessee to this plant, and they come over the hill and see this monstrous thing, turn around to the railroad track and go home and say ‘I quit,’” Mitch said as we passed a number of NO TRESPASSING signs. “Because there is no other TVA plant like Paradise.”
The public isn’t allowed anywhere near the plant, but luckily for me, Mitch’s post-retirement gig, on contract for the TVA, is planning the demolition of the very structures that sustained his earlier career. There’s an odd poetic justice to Mitch’s current role in putting the coal-fired units to rest, because Paradise is now little more than a giant burial ground for men, women, and machines. Though there is no longer any visible evidence that Paradise once had living residents, its three graveyards remain intact and relatively well maintained.
From Weir Cemetery, which sits adjacent to a large clearing that was long ago strip mined, you can see the enormous steam plant rising over a prominent ridge to the east. A line of charred trees—the “tortured timber” that Prine sings about in the third verse of “Paradise”—sits atop that ridge, keeping watch over these domains: on one side, the TVA, and on the other, the dead. And there are more than bodies buried in Paradise. In 1985, when the Sinclair strip mine was finally spent, Peabody’s thirteen-story, twenty-million-pound “Big Hog” mining machine—which Prine christened “the world’s largest shovel,” responsible for “hauling” Paradise away—literally dug its own grave, where it remains buried to this day.
Mitch reckons he didn’t hear the song “Paradise” until Prine came to the county to perform in the late eighties. Though Prine grew up in Chicago, he spent summers visiting his grandparents in Paradise. His grandfather, Ham, ran the Green River ferry. So when Muhlenberg County’s most famous homegrown stars, the Everly Brothers, founded a Labor Day music festival in 1988, Prine was invited back as a native son.
He did not exactly receive a hero’s welcome. Mitch told me the story of how Prine traveled to the festival alone, arriving inconspicuously in his pickup truck with little more than a cooler of beer in tow. When he pulled up to the performers’ entrance, three volunteers could not figure out who he was and refused to let him enter. (When I wrote Prine to corroborate this story, his version was a little different: “They knew exactly who I was but didn’t like the cooler of beer I had with me!”) After the volunteers made Prine take his beer out of the back of his truck, Mitch said, “he just about turned around and went home.” Eventually the misunderstanding was cleared up, and Prine came back each of the next five Septembers. “Paradise” became the festival’s closing theme, with all the headliners taking the stage for an ensemble performance culminating in Prine’s wistful final verse:
When I die, let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester Dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
This closing image echoes local lore about the founding of Paradise. Legend has it that a nineteenth-century pioneer family traveled furiously up and down the Green River, searching for medical care for their terminally ill daughter. Nobody was able to heal her, but locals pointed the family to a certain spot on the banks, claiming the land there had miraculous healing powers. Upon arrival, the family found this to be so. “This must be Paradise,” they decided, and there they remained.
The town’s origin myth says it was founded on the offer of abundant life, made at a moment of certain death. This bargain—that wealth and rejuvenation would come at a moment of apparent death and destruction—is the same one that extractive interests like Peabody have brought to Muhlenberg County and other resource-rich communities for more than a hundred years. In exchange for the ability to plunder the land and pollute the bodies of everyone living on top of mineral wealth, they promise the same immortality offered to the first family of Paradise—or at least the secular version our culture still promulgates, the “American dream.” Sometimes, for people like Mitch, the bargain seems worth it.
“Paradise” sounds like an elegy, dripping with nostalgia, but it is not a memorial to anything in particular—least of all to its physical namesake, a “backwards old town” about which Prine’s song says almost nothing. This quality frees the song from nostalgia’s central conceit: the idea that the future can only be forged in the image of a pristine past. We now feel the grip of this conceit on our nation, in the insistence that society cannot be made anything worthwhile other than what it once was, that it can only become great again. Whether this nostalgia looks back to the booming postwar industrial economy that lifted families like mine out of poverty, or to a traditionalist, bucolic image of self-reliance and cultural purity—perhaps captured in the “Disney” image of Paradise that Prine remembered from childhood—restorative projects are bound to end in disappointment, resentment, or worse. As Prine sings of Paradise, the triumphant American past is so “often remembered” that our “memories are worn.”
Of course, the idealized past will always retain a certain allure. “Paradise,” despite its clear-eyed assessment of false nostalgia, instantly became an object of nostalgia all its own. Prine wrote the song for his father, who insisted on listening to it in the dark, so he could pretend it was an old song that was just coming up on the jukebox. The bluegrass legend Bill Monroe (born twenty-five miles from Paradise) initially mistook “Paradise” for a traditional song that he had somehow missed over the course of his long life. He couldn’t believe it was a new song; he couldn’t even believe it was from the twentieth century.
“Paradise” might activate our nostalgia but, crucially, it withholds every object or myth toward which we might direct that feeling. While Prine’s chorus reminds us that the Paradise we thought we knew is gone forever (“you’re too late in asking”), the song’s ending insists that after death another paradise waits. Maybe this emotional dexterity, this toggling between stoic resignation and dogmatic hope, was a necessary coping mechanism for the residents of Muhlenberg County, who fed their children with wages from strip-mining but watched as that same industry literally tore down their communities before their eyes. Perhaps Peabody has held its grudge against John Prine for four decades because “Paradise” exposes its lie for what it is: a promise that preys on the necessary human adaptation to forge hope from despair. Even when faced with tangible evidence that “the land was forsaken,” Peabody would have us chalk up these casualties to “the progress of man.” But Prine makes plain that the souls of Muhlenberg County do not rest easily in their graves. Instead, like the first family of Paradise, they travel up and down the Green River in hopeful desperation, certain of paradise waiting, five miles away from wherever they are.
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