20:20 — 20 Questions, 20 Answers

Published June 11, 2021

In part 36 of our continuing 20:20 Q&A series,

the thoughtful Mary Hott —inspiring singer-songwriter and instrumentalist—

joins us to talk about her new album Devil in the Hills: Coal Country Reckoning, growing up in Paw Paw, West Virginia, working with Don Dixon, and so much more.

Devil in the Hills: Coal Country Reckoning was released last Friday, June 4. This powerful album chronicles the long-hidden stories of the men, women, and children who labored in West Virginia mining country during the early 20th century. Some of the songs were created from the haunting and disturbing oral histories from former coal camp residents who were children during that time.

This summer marks 100 years since the end of West Virginia’s notorious Mine Wars. With her timely album, Mary raises awareness of this traumatic time in human history and postulates that trauma continues to live on through the generations. Read what she shares with us here. Her words are well worth thoughtful consideration.

Welcome, Mary, and thank you for joining us.

~NoteWorthy Music

Mary Hott | Photo by Zachary Salman
Photo by Zachary Salman | Photos courtesy of Mary Hott

20:20 with Mary Hott

NWM 1: Please introduce yourself, briefly, as a musician and human of Earth.
Mary: I am a singer-songwriter-instrumentalist, inspired to guide myself and others toward living in our soul’s purpose.

NWM 2: What was your first concert as a fan?
Mary: That would have been the band Asleep at the Wheel, a Texas swing band now based in Austin, who incubated themselves in my tiny West Virginia hometown. Us townsfolk must have been their first audience when they emerged as a band. We didn’t have much money, or live near regular venues, so going to concerts wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s and had moved to NYC that I began to attend regular concerts as a fan. Then it would have been seeing Bobby McFerrin in a solo performance at Carnegie Hall that blew my mind.

NWM 3: Name three things that make you smile.
Mary: Sharing live music performances and seeing my kids happy give me that joyful smile; watching Stephen Colbert’s nightly review of what really happened in the news gives me that laughing smile (and also got me through the 2020 madness).

NWM 4: Your musical exposure was wonderfully varied from an early age: gospel, big band swing music, jazz. By your teens, you were teaching piano and playing piano and guitar at special church services. Later, you fronted bands that ranged from post punk to big band jazz and studied blues harmonica with Jim Fitting (Treat Her Right, Bonnie Raitt).

Tell us about these influences, how they helped shape your music, and their lasting effects into your career.
Mary: Having that childhood experience of living in a small rural town gave me first-hand knowledge of music being central to life; both church and secular activities always included music, and I learned to contribute to the community through music. It was always assumed I would go on to college as a music major and that music would be my career. I did start college as a piano major, but at that time very few schools offered music degrees beyond classical studies or music education.

Having that childhood experience of living in a small rural town gave me first-hand knowledge of music being central to life.

My inexperienced brain told me I needed to do something besides become a teacher so I left school and moved to New York City with a friend. It took some adjusting, moving from West Virginia to NYC, but it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I ended up in a deep dive into jazz and got to perform with some amazing musicians.Those connections also led to studio work. This was before software tools, so I had to know the material cold and cover a wide vocal range and styles; no auto-tune or punch-in corrections.

Today when I rehearse or record, I use the same discipline and go in prepared. I studied vocal jazz with a woman, Anne Marie Moss, who had fronted both the Maynard Ferguson and Count Basie Orchestras at various points in her long career. To this day I use tricks she taught me for a strong, wide-range belt.

Unfortunately, I also let these veteran jazzers scare me a bit. Most of them were older, living in rent controlled one-room flats with no insurance, no regular income. I kept thinking, ‘They’re so amazingly talented and have had some music career success, but they’re barely able to survive!’

Shortly after, my day job employer, a software company, offered me a job in their Boston office, and I took it. I stayed in the Boston area for twenty years and worked in three different bands. My interests had shifted to blues/soul, and I wanted to add blues harmonica to my skill set, so that’s when I worked a bit with Jim Fitting. He focused on technique and had me listening to the classic blues players, learning their licks. I played blues harp in one of the bands, and we opened one night for J. Geils Band and Magic Dick; my playing seemed infantile in comparison. I was also introduced to one of Berklee’s piano teachers and had some really invaluable lessons.

There was one year in between NYC and Boston that I moved to Washington, DC. During that time I hooked up with a post-punk originals band, sort of a Chrissie Hynde sound, and bought a lot of hair product.

I became driven to write my own music for my own voice, to support what I wanted to say …

All of these experiences taught me that I might be able to sing just about any style, but there are some specific styles that really shine more than others. That’s when I became driven to write my own music for my own voice, to support what I wanted to say out in the world.

NWM 5: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received that you actually follow?
Mary: ‘Know Thyself’ (the phrase written over the gateway to the temple at Delphi)

NWM 6: You have a master’s degree in computer science, and for 16 years worked at software engineering and project manager jobs. For a few years, you were detached from music.

What was that period of time like for you, and how did it feel returning to music?
Mary: That was the numbing time of my life. I had buried my own needs and hid from my own desires, from my soul’s calling. I had put others’ needs over my own instead of finding the necessary balance for a healthy life. I had never really left music behind—I still performed, but in a very part-time way.

There was a long number of years of rediscovering myself where my music re-emerged along with the real me. My first album of original material (2014) spoke to that awakening of the self. Those songs were so personal, I never promoted the album. But it was well-regarded, and I had some really fine musicians playing on it. That same year is when I heard the NPR broadcast about the coal camp stories. So instead of pursuing a band to promote that first album, I jumped into writing another album.

Mary Hott with Billy Thompson | Photo by Jason Kaufman
Mary Hott with Billy Thompson | Photo by Jason Kaufman

NWM 7: Please share a unique childhood experience that you feel helped contribute to who you and your music are today.
Mary: I think the time and place I was raised as a child was magical and unique. I don’t remember thinking we didn’t have much money; it just wasn’t important at that time. We lived surrounded by gardens and woods, next to my grandparents. I was always outside, had my favorite places in the woods, and was always singing there.

I think the time and place I was raised as a child was magical and unique.

NWM 8: Being born and raised in the small town of Paw Paw, West Virginia, set the stage for your all-important project Devil in the Hills: Coal Country Reckoning, which chronicles the long-hidden stories of the men, women, and children who labored in West Virginia mining country during the early 20th century.

Though Paw Paw was not itself a mining town, but a canal and railroad town, it was built by immigrants who suffered harsh conditions just as the coal miners did.

To what extent were you aware of this history growing up, and how did the conception and inspiration for your Devil in the Hills project come about?
Mary: I had no knowledge of this history growing up. And fellow West Virginians who have listened to this album say the same thing. This part of our history, particularly the mistreatment of people, was very well concealed.

As a kid in Paw Paw, my grandfather Hott had told me a few stories about railroad and canal workers having drunken brawls in town on Saturday nights. And there were some ghost stories people used to tell about a secret section of the town cemetery. While doing some research for this project, I found out there are mass unmarked graves in a section of the cemetery where immigrant railroad workers (mainly Hungarian, Italian, Polish, African) are buried. I have copies of the town undertaker’s journal with the names and countries of these men. One town elder told me his great grandfather claimed Chinese workers were buried in the cement walls supporting one of the tunnels.

As for the coal camps, people knew the men and families lived and worked under dangerous and unfair conditions. And when Mother Jones and others attempted to help unionize for better pay and safety, that’s when the tortuous conditions grew worse. The coal operators did everything they could to keep from having to spend money on labor.

It wasn’t until an old coal company store was being restored as a museum that elders showed up to see the store again and tell their childhood and family stories, that we heard these tales for the first time. West Virginia Public Broadcasting covered some of those stories, and I happened to hear that broadcast, along with a state historian doubting the legitimacy. That’s what set me into action—there was an underlying truth to the stories that I wanted everyone to hear. I decided music would be a good way to help those stories to be heard.

NWM 9: What is a favorite of your songs? Please tell us a little bit about it.
Mary: I think it’s a toss-up between two songs, ‘Annabelle Lee’ and ‘Take the Esau.’ And they’re so musically different. Annabelle is like a Celtic ballad, while Esau is roots rock. Both songs address multiple coal camp stories that came from the sexual exploitation of women in the coal camps. There was something both horrifying and familiar with these stories.

I decided music would be a good way to help those stories to be heard.

‘Annabelle Lee’ is about young women and girls sex trafficked by railway into the mining camps. ‘Take the Esau’ is a composite of three stories told by multiple women regarding various offenses perpetrated against them. Coal companies paid miners with a private currency called ‘scrip.’ The ‘Esau scrip’ story shocked people because no one had heard of this name before. It turned out to be a special scrip given to women to buy food if their husband couldn’t mine coal, but had to be repaid by assignments (including sex) dictated by the company store supervisor.

It was doubly horrifying that someone named it Esau, from the Old Testament story of twin brothers Esau and Jacob, where Esau gives up his birthright for a bowl of porridge. Whoever named it ‘Esau scrip’ was a sociopath, saying those women were giving up their birthright to get food for their families. What I tried to relay with both of these songs is that sexual abuse and exploitation of girls and women happened in the coal camps but had been kept secret out of fear and shame; it was a matter of their family’s survival.

[‘Annabelle Lee’] is like a Celtic ballad. … [It] is about young women and girls sex trafficked by railway into the mining camps.

NWM 10: Many of the coal camp stories that became songs on your album came to light as oral histories told at the Whipple Company Store and Museum in Fayette County, West Virginia, to owner Joy Lynn by former coal camp residents who were children in the early 20th century, which Lynn documented in two books.

Tell us about encountering these oral histories and your annual visits to the museum.
Mary: I’m an avid NPR listener. On Halloween week in 2014, our local West Virginia Public Broadcasting ran a series of ghost stories in the state. One of those ghost stories was about the old Whipple Company Store building being haunted, and perhaps the most ghostly story was about the newly discovered ‘Esau scrip.’

The validity of the women’s stories was questioned by some state representatives, suggesting that if the stories were true we would have heard about them long ago, that the miners wouldn’t have stood for something so horrendous, and there weren’t any court records showing this occurred. But the facts are, victims don’t always tell what happened out of fear, shame, or intimidation. And the miners did fight against how they and their families were being treated—West Virginia’s ‘Mine Wars’ were fought sporadically from 1911 to 1921. And as for court records of crimes? That was a laughable suggestion because the State allowed coal mine properties to be private property and excluded from state laws.

We have come to accept that the extraction industries have damaged our water, air, and soil for decades. It’s time to recognize the damage also done to our people.

This continued cover-up of what took place in mining camps compelled me to travel the 4.5 hours to meet Joy Lynn, the woman who former coal camp residents were visiting and confiding in, to hear directly from her and experience being in the presence of the company store. That was July 2015, and I visited her three more times including the day in October 2018 when the building had just been sold. That’s when I took photos of various rooms and artifacts, including Esau scrip, with Joy’s consent. There is an indescribable presence to that building. We don’t know who the architect was, but the coal baron who had it built knew exactly why he wanted it designed the way it was. Another whole topic for another time.

NWM 11: Devil in the Hills: Coal Country Reckoning [was released] on June 4. This summer marks 100 years since the end of West Virginia’s notorious Mine Wars. Through this album, you shine light on a number of facets from the sexual exploitation of women and girls to generational emotional trauma to the terrible working conditions faced by working class people through multiple generations.

Please share a bit about the songs on your powerful album, their personal significance, and the message you wish to convey.
Mary: Yes, the final battle of West Virginia’s Mine Wars was fought mid-August to September 2, 1921. One hundred years ago this year. I do see these stories as oral history, portraying the human side of what the miners and their wives were fighting for. And if we take these stories as oral history, we can’t overlook how living in what was essentially a state of daily trauma impacts today’s generation. Trauma doesn’t just disappear. It lives on through generations.

There is a booklet that accompanies the CD that tells some of the stories and gives historical context. In it I wrote: ‘We have come to accept that the extraction industries have damaged our water, air, and soil for decades. It’s time to recognize the damage also done to our people.’

Trauma doesn’t just disappear. It lives on through generations.

And that’s really at the heart of this album project—I wanted to raise the question that perhaps a contributing factor to our problems today stem from the fact that our people were subjected to horrendous treatment, and the perpetrators have never apologized or even acknowledged it. This part of our history was white-washed over the past century. And what happens when someone is victimized, but everyone says ‘that didn’t really happen’ or ‘that’s the past, get over it’ or any other number of brush-offs. … That says to the victim ‘you don’t matter’ or ‘you’re not important enough to take the time to work this out.’ Some people might say those messages are in our collective consciousness.

NWM 12: How do you keep yourself centered or able to cope with stress during these trying times?
Mary: I did really well through the pandemic because I love retreating and focusing on playing music and learning new skills. I also got out into nature and meditated more frequently. And I connected with people through presenting and attending special video streaming events.

NWM 13: What are your special interests beyond music?
Mary: Good wine and good food shared in compelling conversation with good friends in a beautiful setting. Preferably a garden. I love to garden.

Mary Hott | Photo by Jim Williams
Photo by Jim Williams

NWM 14: What song/album could you play on repeat?
Mary: I’m not sure I could handle one song on repeat! But this question does remind me that I used to do just that when I wanted to learn a vocal or instrumental technique. So I’d say a good choice would be Ellen McIlwaine’s Up From The Skies album to learn her fantastic rhythm guitar technique and jam with her vocal improv.

NWM 15: Devil in the Hills was co-produced by Don Dixon, the legendary indie-rock producer, with Michael Lipton, (longtime Mountain Stage house band guitar player, West Virginia Music Hall of Fame Founder/Director, and guitarist and songwriter in The Carpenter Ants—the Americana/gospel Charleston, West Virginia-based band that served as the album’s studio musicians). Dixon recorded the album with his portable studio gear in Lipton’s acoustically warm and lively old house in Charleston.

Tell us about working with these iconic individuals, recording with The Carpenter Ants, and having such a picturesque setting for a studio.
Mary: Don is simply amazing—a warm and calming presence that puts you instantly at ease, along with a huge talent for performance, production, and the technical knowledge for getting a perfect sound. He has also worked as an actor. So when I wanted a voice-over of one of the miner’s stories, Don made a cameo performance. And I can hear where he added almost magical touches throughout the album to bring the production to life.

The icing on top was having the soulful vocal harmonies of The Carpenter Ants and their overall laid-back groove.

Michael has a genius-level ability for arranging and production in the styles that I felt this music needed. Which is why I asked if he and The Ants would consider being my backing band for this project. When he first played back my songs, he asked if I was open to suggestions, which I welcomed. What came next was a collaboration in the greatest musical sense. He altered rhythmic treatments which inspired me to make melodic and lyric changes. We rewrote the lyrics and music to one of the songs together. And he played multiple instruments and handled the band arrangements. The icing on top was having the soulful vocal harmonies of The Carpenter Ants and their overall laid-back groove. I’m looking forward to performing with them again.

NWM 16: If you could see anyone from throughout history perform who would it be?
Mary: Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Jordan and his orchestra, Frank Zappa

NWM 17: What is a unique trait or quality that sets you apart from the crowd?
Mary: Empathy.

NWM 18: What is something that has surprised you in your life or career? Tell us a bit about it.
Mary: A few years ago I was wallowing in thinking I was past my prime, too old to be working in music any longer, and needed to give up on any career prospects in music. But when I came across these stories, this other world opened up. Music became a more evolved medium for me to reach others. Now I approach age as more of a ‘coming of age.’

Now I approach age as more of a ‘coming of age.’

NWM 19: What is one thing you would want our readers to know about you which we might not know to ask?
Mary: Other work I do to support my music and be in connection with people is being a coach/advisor to individuals and organizations to help them reach their full potential. This includes leading group events using music and vibrational energy techniques.

NWM 20: What’s next for Mary Hott?
Mary: More songwriting! I have several new songs in the works and will be performing live more frequently as the pandemic lifts. And of course in the short term, this August and September I’ll be helping to tell the world about the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain, the final battle of the West Virginia Mine Wars.

Mary Hott | ‘They Built a Railroad’
The Carpenter Ants L-R: Charlie Tee (lead vocals), Michael Lipton (guitar, vocals), Jupie Little (drums, vocals), Ted Harrison (bass, vocals)
Mary Hott

Mary Hott

A seventh-generation West Virginian, Mary was born and raised in Paw Paw, West Virginia, an old canal and railroad town which, at the time, had a population of 600. Her high school graduating class consisted of 11 students. With just under 500 people at the last census, it’s still as small town as it gets.

Like many singers, she got her musical start singing in church—the Paw Paw Methodist Church children’s choir. She was four, and her mother was the church pianist. Years later, at 87, her mother still plays piano every Sunday at the same church. By the time Mary was a teen her mother had her substitute on piano, or she was singing and playing guitar for special church services, weddings, and funerals along the preacher’s circuit of small Methodist churches that dotted the countryside.

After 26 years in New York City and Boston for college, music, and work, Mary was ready to make that often-perilous emotional journey home. To this day, that sense of community and continuity that is so strong in West Virginia remains a driving force in both her life and music.

Being back home revived her interest in the plight of West Virginia and Appalachia. Mary immersed herself in the stories of the state’s ubiquitous coal culture, which became the motivation to expose the horrendous treatment that coal miners and their families endured. And she was able to draw some parallels to the slave-like conditions and unmarked graves of workers who built the C&O Canal and railroads in her hometown area.

Mary wanted these stories to touch people in ways they hadn’t in the history books. Music and storytelling seemed to be the path. The result is her latest musical project titled Devil in the Hills.

To learn more and buy stuff visit https://maryhott.com/

You may enjoy our previous 20:20 with Jefferson Berry

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