Muhlenberg County, Kentucky

The song “Paradise” by John Prine, first recorded in 1971, tells a story about the tiny town of Paradise in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, lamenting the changes that have occurred in his lifetime in his parents’ birthplace. Muhlenberg County is part of Kentucky’s western coal fields, and the song’s lyrics detail how “the coal company came, with the world’s largest shovel / and they tortured the timber and stripped all the land / well they dug for their coal ’til the land was forsaken / then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.” Prine measures this form of industrial progress in a small, rural place against his and his family’s memories of the place. It is a nostalgic song, and I don’t typically go in for nostalgia, as it usually conveniently forgets a lot of awful things about the past to present a very rosy picture, but this song always strikes a chord with me. My dad is from central Kentucky (bourbon country, and his father worked in a distillery), and my mom from eastern Kentucky, where her father and one of her brothers worked in coal mines for many years and where strip mining, also often called mountaintop removal in the region, like that Prine describes in his song have become the norm in the extraction of mineral resources. While this has promoted some economic development in what is one of the poorest regions of the United States, it has created an environmental nightmare as well, detailed since at least the early 1960s when Harry Caudill wrote Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area. As for Muhlenberg County, I have only ever passed through, but my family did spend a lot of time when I was a kid at nearby Rough River Lake, which is just a bit east of Muhlenberg County and a 60 to 90 minute drive from where I grew up in Louisville. My grandfather had a small trailer there for weekend trips to go fishing, and we went there once or twice a summer for several years in the 1980s and early 1990s. The song always makes me think of that place, similar to the Paradise that Prine describes, and, as I discussed in the recording on place linked my very first post, demonstrating that music can be a powerful anchor to and shaper of place, and our engagement with and memories of specific places.

The YouTube video I linked above is a live version from 1980,though lots of other live and recorded versions are available online. The picture is from a website dedicated to John Prine’s work.