“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” by Brad Paisley
By this point, we have already studied enough songs historically based in American coal-mining country to know that many southern Whites had a difficult time surviving in the United States also. Such is the case with “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”. The titular Harlan is a reference to a county found in Kentucky where coal-mining has been and apparently remains, even long after the decline of the industry at large, a major economic activity found therein.
To reiterate, readers of this blog may already know that as far as labor laws are concerned, coal miners rank amongst the most-exploited workers in modern history.
“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”
As the origin story goes this song’s writer, Darrell Scott, traces his ancestry back to Harlan. And upon visiting the local cemetery to do some related research, he came across a gravestone upon which the words “you’ll never leave Harlan alive” were written.
Apparently what that ominous phrase alludes to, more simply put, is Harlan being a place of woefully-limited upward-social mobility. It is upon such a concept that this song’s lyrics are primarily based.
So after the first verse, where the vocalist recounts coming across the aforementioned gravestone, his focus shifts to his great-grandfather. And in a nutshell, what Brad proceeds to do is present his forefathers as being a simple yet hopeful people.
But unfortunately, as fate would have it, the land they resided on was rich in a mineral that was of paramount importance to big business. Also, as noted earlier, opportunities were limited. So try as they might for the family to switch over to tobacco farming for instance, at the end of the day the vocalist’s grandfather had to go back in the mines. Ultimately, he “never left Harlan alive”.
Also interesting to note is that even the man who introduced coal mining to the area is depicted as failing to make it out of the ‘hood intact.
Beyond that, the singer also depicts Harlan as a place where the sun rises late and goes down early. This likely has something to do with the fact that this county is mountainous. This is a characteristic also mentioned in the lyrics.
In closing, as alluded to at the beginning of this post, the vocalist’s goal is to illustrate that everything wasn’t all gravy for his forefather. Him doing so is not race-based, as we may have inferred earlier. But many an American country singer has taken it upon him or herself to let the world know that their recent ancestors went through some major adversities as a result of their livelihoods being under the thumb of unscrupulous businessmen.
Did Brad Paisley write “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”?
Paisley played no role in this song’s composition. It was written by another country singer, Darrell Scott, who came out with the original in 1997. Since 1997, it has been covered by a number of artists since, most notably thus far, as far as critical reception is concerned, Kentuckian Patty Loveless.
Brad Paisley’s Version
Brad’s rendition can be found on his sophomore album “Part II”. It was released through Arista Nashville on 29 May 2001 and produced by Frank Rogers.
Brad was not a direct descendant of coal miners. However, he did grow up in West Virginia, which borders Kentucky and is also part of the United States’ main coal-mining region. He covered this song because he had personally witnessed the harmful effects of coal mining in this region.
Paisely didn’t release “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” as one of Part II‘s singles. Despite this, it went on to become one of the most loved songs on the album.
At the CMA Awards of 2022, Chris Stapleton alongside Patty Loveless performed this song live. During that performance, Darrel Scott (who wrote the song) joined them. He accompanied them live on stage playing the dobro.
The trio were also joined by Morgane Stapleton and Deanie Richardson, playing harmony and fiddle respectively.
The band of musicians performed this song as tribute to all the victims of the July 2022 flood in Eastern Kentucky. The said flooding claimed over 40 lives.
Other Popular Covers of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”
Paisley’s rendition is one of the most famous covers of this classic. So is Patty Loveless’ version. Patty’s version came out in 2002. Another notable cover was released by Kathy Mattea in 2008.