Cole Chaney opened his debut album Mercy with the hard-driving “Ill Will Creek” but it was the title track that set the tone for the release. In a recent interview with Outsider, Cole said that he wanted his record to deliver a message of uncertainty and desperation. “Mercy” hammered that message home with every note.
Without knowing the story behind the song, the meaning is still fairly obvious. It tells the story of the corporate abuse of Appalachia. This is a tale as old as time for Coal Country states like Kentucky and West Virginia. Slowly dying towns that were once built on coal, steel, or other industries dot the region. Corporations come through, use up all the resources they can, make their money, and pull out. This leaves residents of these once-booming towns holding the bag, wondering how they’ll make ends meet.
You can hear that reflected in lines like “New company comes to town / They put a shovel in the ground / Swear to be the savior of our place. / They finally got their funds / Doesn’t matter where they’re from / Another company lied right to our face.”
However, “Mercy” isn’t a song about a general idea or shared regional experience. Instead, Cole Chaney used “Mercy” to tell the story of his hometown of Catlettsburg, Kentucky.
Cole Chaney on “Mercy”
Overall, Cole Chaney said that he wrote “Mercy” about “the wrongdoings of big corporations. Promises made, promises not kept.” His hometown, which is near Ashland, Kentucky, has seen more than its fair share of this. “There’s been a lot of big companies come through with a bunch of promises and then not even halfway delivering on their promises. If anything, they just end up hurting the area even more as jobs leave.”
You can hear that reflected in lines like “Ain’t nothin’ in this town / That hasn’t been shut down / Or soon to be headed that way.”
In the opening verse, Cole Chaney makes things personal and paints a picture of his hometown. For instance, “It’s been a few long months / since AK got shut down.” There, he’s referring to the AK Steel plant that once provided jobs for many Catlettsburg residents.
Coincidentally, they demolished the AK Steel furnace the day before I spoke to Cole Chaney. “I got woken up yesterday by two massive explosions,” he said. Then, he elaborated. “They were blowing up the old AK Steel furnace. They shut that down in 2019. That was one of the precursors to me writing the song.”
Unfortunately, the fall of the AK Steel factory wasn’t the only thing Cole Chaney drew directly from his life. “My mother found out yesterday / She needs to find another job / I guess the stock for Mercy is down.”
Cole’s mother is a nurse. She worked at Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital and lost her job when they shut the hospital down. About that, Chaney said, “That’s kind of what pushed me over the edge to write that song.”
No Mercy for Company Towns
The uncertainty and desperation in the lines of “Mercy” permeate the rest of the album. However, they don’t stop there. Those same feelings reverberate from the cracked pavement of dying Main Streets throughout Appalachia as massive corporations swoop in and make promises before chewing those towns up, spitting them out, and moving on.
In the closing lines of the final verse, Cole Chaney sums up what it feels like to live in and witness the death of a town as it chokes on the dust of an industry moving on and leaving residents without jobs, hope, or indeed, a modicum of mercy. “Lord, I don’t want to leave her out to dry. She’s gasping for air / And there ain’t no air to spare. / She’ll be gone before the morning light.”