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W.Va. native Breiding hopes to light fire under coal miners' plight

| Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Local musician Tom Breiding performs at his regular gig at the Leaf & Bean in the Strip District on Saturday July 18, 2015.

Many of the songs on Tom Breiding's latest CD, “River, Rails or Road,” are about the plight of coal miners in his native West Virginia. An accompanying short film by Jeff Sewald expands this concept.

“River, Rails, or Road: Tom Breiding's Wheeling” explores themes, notably the loss of the West Virginia city's industrial base, that's not uncommon in the region.

“There are hundreds (of towns like Wheeling),” says Breiding, who performs Sept. 19 at Sunburst School of Music's BurghSong Listening Room Concert Series in Squirrel Hill. “Blawnox, Homestead, McKeesport. The plight is the same everywhere. … That's the reality of America today.”

Breiding, who lives in Washington County, has long examined working-class issues via songwriting. When he released “The Unbroken Circle: Songs of the West Virginia Coalfields” in 2008, however, his career was transformed. He became known for his pro-labor advocacy, following a path taken by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.

If Breiding's work is comparable to those performers, however, it's not by design. The songs come solely from the kinship he feels with coal miners. That said, Breiding is aware of the history of this music.

“I've recognized that, and started paying closer attention to people like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger,” he says. “It's something I feel I have to live up to. I still look to them and the decisions they made along their careers. They changed directions in their career at different points. They had their reasons why and I'm looking at those things daily as I write and continue my journey.”

Sewald — whose films include “Gridiron & Steel,” about football in Western Pennsylvania, and “Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries,” about the noted novelist — first met Breiding five years ago at a performance in Pittsburgh. He was struck by Breiding's ability to translate his passion for the material into cogent songs.

“The amazing thing about Tom is that he's one of those artists who went where his muse took him,” Sewald says. “Some artists consciously resist their forte because they think they're supposed to be doing something else, they're supposed to be somebody else. The fact that he's embraced, not just the mine workers, but he's embraced West Virginia … he embraced who he was. And who he was through his family, his extended family, was the very same personality and spirit that's in these various mine workers.”

Breiding admits the focus of his writing had evolved since he started performing almost three decades ago. His initial efforts were “writing for writing's sake,” he says.

Only gradually did he realize that he needed to write about issues that were dear to him, the things “that were part of my soul,” he says. “My upbringing was a big part of it, and those were the songs that seemed to resonate with people. From that point on, I continued on that path and what was true to my vision and my background and what I know and the places I've been.”

The film was shot in Wheeling and at various rallies for coal miners across the country. Breiding says that he's long admired how the film medium can capture music, notably in “The Song Remains the Same” (Led Zeppelin) and “The Last Waltz” (The Band).

Sewald, who used a stream-of-consciousness approach for the film, thinks he captured a quality that's rare in contemporary music.

“When you're shooting something like this the one thing you need is authenticity,” Sewald says. “I always believed that Tom was the real deal, that he wasn't a guy pretending to be something. This was who he was, so it became second nature to capture him in his element.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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