Maggie Longmire sings original ballads of Tennessee coal country

Singer-songwriter Maggie Longmire was the featured artist March 23 at the UT Libraries’ unique series Boundless: Artists in the Archives. Her songs spoke of the hard lives of coal miners and their families, and a hoped-for end to our reliance on fossil fuels.

The Boundless program invites musicians and other artists to visit the Libraries’ archives and create original works inspired by what they discover there. Enjoy a recording of Maggie Longmire’s performance, including those original compositions, below. Her ballads will strike a chord in your heart.

In exploring the Libraries’ archives, Longmire was drawn to resources that chronicle life in East Tennessee coal mining communities at the turn of the 20th century. For Longmire, who grew up in LaFollette, Tennessee, and is the descendant of a coal-mining family, the Boundless program was an opportunity to revisit Campbell County history. In particular, she wanted to honor the spirit of strong women like her own great-grandmother who, despite many hardships, uplift the lives of others.

The evening’s performance began with a couple of songs from Longmire’s album Granddaughters: An Americana Opera, co-created with her brother. In the album, “we told a lot of stories about the troubled times and the hard times, and the issues around coal mining,” she said before performing the song “Grandma, Mary Lou, and Me.” “It’s actually my mother’s story.… She was raised by her grandmother — she and her sister.… Apparently, my mother’s Grandma Richards was one strong woman.… Mother loved to tell stories about her Grandma Richards because she felt that everything that was ever good in her life came from her being raised by her grandmother.”

Later in the evening, before performing “Trapped,” one of the songs inspired by the library’s archives, Longmire spoke of other influences that informed her lyrics. “A friend of mine had been asked to write a story of a family that had grown up in coal camps.… Being a coal miner’s wife had to be just a damn tough job. Because there was fear. There was lack of funds.” The son who asked Longmire’s friend to help him honor his mother by recounting her life story said, “No matter how tough it got, Mom always came back up with a smile on her face, ready to take on the next challenge.” Another strong woman. “I thought of that woman … in the process of writing that song,” Longmire said. Here’s how that song begins:

When I said I’d take his hand / I knew full well he was a minin’ man
Fell so hard — gave my heart away
Now here I am a miner’s wife / Ah, here I am a miner’s wife

The days and the years all run together
Ain’t gainin’ any ground / Nothin’ much gets better
Trapped here in this minin’ camp
Choppin’ wood and haulin’ water / Choppin’ wood and haulin’ water

Rollin’ out biscuit, cookin’ them white beans, scrubbin’ that laundry, burn of that lye soap, mendin’ them old clothes, cursin’ that coal dust, feeding them babies — one in my belly, one on my hip, and one hangin’ ‘round my knees
(from “Trapped,” words and music by Maggie Longmire)

One phrase she uses in the song is an expression Longmire heard from her mother: “Sometimes life sure does get daily.” “And that just seemed to be a good fit. We’ll keep that phrase going: Life gets daily.”

After writing and singing about hardships and deferred dreams, “I wanted to write a song that would be about what it would be like if things went right. And a song that was about hope, hope that was realized,” Longmire said. Her song “To Be in America” was inspired by an 1879 government pamphlet preserved in the Libraries’ archives. Tennessee: The Home for Intelligent Immigrants, by J. B. Killibrew, the state commissioner of agriculture and mines, was a call for immigration to Tennessee — part of a movement that sought to attract skilled artisans and laborers from Europe in order to exploit Tennessee’s natural resources and to expand manufacturing in the state. “For every one of the millions of immigrants who have come here, there is a story,” said Longmire. “We’ve been kind, and we’ve been cruel. People have struggled, and people have been successful.” With a nod to the long-standing Italian population in her hometown of LaFollette, in “To Be in America” Longmire imagines a young stone mason and his bride sailing from Genoa, Italy, to make a life in America.

A few years ago, Longmire was contemplating the next chapter in her life. “I wanted to count for something important, and I wanted to continue to do that with my music, as best I could. And — as the universe will do — it put me together with some environmental folks, and … I had an awakening about climate change … and what we needed to do to take care of our planet if we still want to live on it and to take care of the next generations.” Longmire got involved in the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “And so I was just fueled with this new energy to take my music and my activism forward.” “From the Miner’s Wife” was one of the songs inspired by that new realization.

Leave it in the ground / the bones of ancient times
Leave it in the ground / We’ve seen the warning signs
We’ve found some better ways to live our lives
The wind and the sun, they will provide

(from “From the Miner’s Wife,” words and music by Maggie Longmire)

Longmire was highly complimentary of the Boundless program. She met repeatedly with various library staff members to explore the archives, make studio recordings of her original compositions, and create a slideshow of historical images to punctuate her live performance on March 23. “They document everything we do. It’s just such a lovely gift,” Longmire said. “I urge you to go listen to all the other performers who have had this opportunity.” Recordings of the original compositions that Maggie Longmire created for Boundless: Artists in the Archives will be posted soon at, alongside the works of earlier Boundless artists.