John Prine knew coal’s destructive ways

February 20, 2019 GMT

A story on the Internet a couple weeks ago brought back memories and a song.

A federal utility board voted to close a coalfired power plant in Kentucky. The Tennessee Valley Authority voted to close the remaining coal-fired unit by December 2020 at the Paradise Fossil Plant along the Green River in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.

And with it will go the ugly strip mine that destroyed Paradise.

Immediately a John Prine song came to mind.

“When I was a child my family would travel

Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born

And there’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered


So many times that my memories are worn.

“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

Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”

I became familiar with Muhlenberg County and Paradise before Prine sang his song. My stepmother was from those parts, and every time we visited her after she moved back with her daughter, we passed through Muhlenberg County.

Prine’s song continued:

“Then 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 till the land was forsaken

Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.”

When I was with the band “The 1937 Flood,” we sang Prine’s song. My son learned the song from us before he began school. He wanted to see “the world’s largest shovel,” and once we drove to the site of the behemoth.

I suspect his leaning that song so young is the reason he is against strip mining today.

We would drive along the road in Muhlenberg lined with scrub pine trees and bare earth beyond.

Peabody Coal posted signs calling it “Operation Green Earth.”

Prine’s song said:

“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.”

The closing of the Paradise Power Plant will put about 600 plant operators and coal miners out of jobs. It’s another strike against coal-fired power plants that are doomed.

It doesn’t mean the end of coal. A coal company announced last week that it will mine metallurgical coal from a longwall mine in Barbour County. “Met coal,” as it is called, is the only future that coal has in the U.S.


But the mining of met (coking) coal will be a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of “steam coal” that was once mined in Paradise and destroyed that town and a hundred other towns and villages in West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and elsewhere in America.

In time, I am sure technology will be able to produce steel without tearing met coal out of mountains.

But until that time, coal trains, trucks and river barges will continue to destroy pieces of coal country, not as much as in the past but more than Mother Nature would like to see.

Dave Peyton is on Facebook. His email address is