Coal Keeps the Lights On: The Story of an Unlikely Singer-Activist

Few know Jimmy Rose, but he could be (and should be) the biggest reality TV star yet

by Lee Habeeb | Updated 10 Mar 2017 at 11:38 PM

Few Americans know the power of the administrative state better than a man America met a few years ago when he performed on a reality TV show.

It was the summer of 2013, and it was episode 806 of “America’s Got Talent,” an “American Idol” knockoff with hosts Howard Stern, Heidi Klum, and Howie Mandel. Up to the microphone stepped a 36-year-old man — acoustic guitar in hand — dressed in jeans, a tucked-in khaki shirt, and a pair of brown cowboy boots. His name was Jimmy Rose. He was born in a town called Pineville, in Bell County, Kentucky — coal country, America.

“Where I’m from, it’s such a small town, it’s either the coal mines, the military or you go to college,” he explained.

“I was an 18-year-old when I graduated high school. I went straight under the ground four days after I graduated,” he told the audience.

Rose skipped the college route and instead tried the other two career paths. “I was an 18-year-old when I graduated high school and went straight under the ground four days after I graduated,” he told the audience.

But he soon traded that risky job for an even riskier one by enlisting in the Marine Corps. By 2005, he was in Iraq, which turned out to be one of the most dangerous years to be deployed there. America lost 846 soldiers in 2005 alone.

“My hands are sweaty,” he said just before he began his performance on national television. “I can’t keep ‘em dry.” Rose was nervous because he was singing an original song. He was about to share a piece of his life — a piece of his heart — with America. And he wasn’t just singing for himself, but for all the people back home who worked in the mines. Who counted on the mines.

He was nervous because, like Marines, coal people are tough people. Tough men and women who don’t much care for complaining, let alone whining. This coal-mining Marine was nervous because he wasn’t quite sure how things were going to play out. Then the song started. This was the first verse:

He pulls in that ole Chevy from a second shift,
Mama’s still sleeping, kids still crashed down on the couch.
He goes in the back door; he don’t wanna wake them up,
And he wipes the coal dust off his face and hits his knees.
He says, Lord, I want to thank you for everything,
And the strength you give me to make it day by day.

The audience immediately fell in love with the man in that song. And the man singing about him.

Then came the chorus.

Coal keeps the lights on.
My hometown keeps food on the spoon in my young-un’s mouth,
Tires on the truck and a sundress on my baby girl.
Coal keeps the bills paid, the clothes on the backs,
and shoes on the feet in the high school halls of the Mountain Lions
and the Bell County Bobcats on the hill.
I hope I can say coal kept the lights on.

The song ended there. The audience loved it. So did the judges.

“That was a damned good song,” Howard Stern told Rose. “I really need you to be a part of this competition. You are what we need.”

But like millions of other Americans who love country music, I sensed that I'd only heard part of that song. Most country songs have at least two verses and a bridge. This one only had one verse, one chorus and no bridge. A little poking around on the internet was all it took to find the rest of the song. Here is the second verse — the part not heard by millions the night Rose sang on TV.

They went plumb down crazy in Washington.
They're talking about closing the mines.
They're gonna bleed us all dry from the inside out.
They don't care that much about the little man or the calloused hands.
It's a way of life 'round here, just like it's always been.

And here's how Rose's song — a very new kind of protest song — ended.

If I get the chance to stand one day,
And name the things to me that I'm most proud of,
Well, I hope one day I can say, that coal kept the lights on.
My hometown keeps food on the spoon in my young-un's mouth.
Tires on the truck and a sundress on my baby girl.
Coal kept the bills paid, the clothes on the backs,
and shoes on the feet in the high school halls of the Mountain Lions
and the Bill County Bobcats on the hill.
I hope I can say that coal kept the lights on.

That's what makes this such a remarkable protest song. Because it begins and ends as a love song for a way of life that is being destroyed by the very government on whose behalf the narrator served in uniform overseas.

Unlike Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger — both of whom loved to rail against capitalism and corporations — Rose chose not to rail against the big coal companies. He set his sights on the faceless bureaucrats shutting the mines down. And doing so without the consent of the American people, without the chance to vote, debate, or dissent.

The only reason protest singers ever rail against the government is when it's not redistributing wealth enough, or it's sending boys to war. But Rose wasn't protesting the war in Iraq or looking for rich people to pony up and help the people he knows back home. The people he was writing about just want their jobs back, their way of life back.

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But the story didn't end there. One year later, Rose's brush with celebrity took him to a smaller and more unlikely venue: the hearing room of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Rose was invited by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to speak on behalf of the people in his hometown. On behalf of the victims of EPA policies. Victims like the coal miner in that song he sang to America — and all of the people who depend on those miners for a living. The waitresses who serve those miners and their families, and the car salesmen and women who sell them their cars.

Though not a college graduate, Rose and his people in Pineville know the price Kentucky has paid because of former President Obama's EPA, activists groups, and a couple of billionaires.

They read the papers. They're not stupid. They know that after the legislative defeat of cap-and-trade and significant setbacks in the 2010 midterm elections, Obama looked for ways he could move forward on climate change using his executive power, a search that ended with last year's Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030.

"It's really arrogant," Sen. McConnell told reporters. "This is not the result of any law that's been passed, and so you've got unelected bureaucrats doing things that have a dramatic, depressing effect on the economy."

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Rose and McConnell sat together in that EPA hearing room, an odder pairing than Felix Unger and Oscar Madison. Before he began his testimony, Rose stood up and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Those in attendance quickly followed.

Rose then went on to make his case. "Let me ask you all a question. Has any of you ever experienced a war zone?" the miner Marine asked the EPA bureaucrats.

But he wasn't talking about Iraq. He was talking about home. He continued:

"Has any of you ever experienced combat, the fear of not knowing you're coming back another day? Take a walk through my hometown. Take a walk through Bell County, Harlan and Pike County, Kentucky. You're going to find real people and real lives who are suffering from this civil war. From this war on coal. Come walk in my community and see the businesses closed, and the trucks with 'for sale' signs. Come walk in the schools and look at the faces of kids who suffer from jobless daddies and uncles and cousins, lookin' for work and wantin' work who don't want a hand out. Come visit our churches and you will find those same people coming together in prayer in these had times."

Rose wasn't finished. He saved his best material for last: "You won't come to this war zone. You won't come to this poverty-stricken area. You won't come and look us in the eye."

Rose then finished things up with a challenge, and a plea: "I want to encourage you, I want to challenge you, that when you make these decisions, you consider the repercussions of the decisions you are making, and what they are doing to our way of life. I'm for saving the environment, and I'm for saving the future, but I believe we've got to save us first. I believe we have to save the people first. Without our people, we don't have tomorrow, folks. I believe we have to save what's real first."

McConnell told reporters he's extended repeated invites for visits from EPA officials. All were rebuffed. "They don't want to see the face of this," he said.

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Stories like these present a real opportunity for President Donald Trump to show the faces of the EPA's victims to America. And how the faceless administrative state works. How it does what it wants, where it wants, and to whom it wants without answering to anyone. Not Congress, not the voters, and certainly not the miners and their families.

Trump should pay a visit to Pineville, Kentucky, and invite a press gaggle to meet Jimmy Rose. And talk to some of the 8,000 people who've lost jobs in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky since 2010.

Let the American people hear his song. Let them hear his plea to those EPA administrators. And the deafening silence that met his plea in that hearing room. The numbing sound of indifference to human life that embodies the modern administrative state.

That would be real reality TV — some great reality TV.

Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of "Our American Stories." He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

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