Steve Earle has never shied away from giving a voice to the voiceless. His latest album, Ghosts of West Virginia, due out on May 22 on New West Records, revolves around the tragic explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia which took place almost exactly ten years ago.
The horrific event caused the death of 29 miners working that afternoon. Afterwards, gross negligence, corruption and unlawful practices by Massey Energy were found to blame. The United Mine Workers of America called the event “industrial homicide.”
Earle was approached by playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, who had previously worked with Earle on their play The Exonerated, to accompany them to interview the few survivors and family members of the victims in the explosion.
From their interviews came the play, Coal Country where Earle provided the songs and performed them live on stage for their short run in New York’s Public Theater — 26 times before the COVID-19 pandemic shut them down. Earle shortly thereafter relocated to Tennessee to quarantine with his son.
“We are really proud of it,” says Earle of the songs and the play. “One of the most gratifying things is that the people that this is about came to New York and saw the show before it closed and they liked it. That is what you want if you are us, that was probably more important than anything else.”
For Ghosts of West Virginia, Earle took six songs used in Coal Country and four additional tracks to complete the album at the legendary Electric Ladyland studio in his New York neighborhood. “The record is kind of like Led Zeppelin with a banjo,” says Earle.
The first single released from the album was “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground,” a bone chilling ballad where Earle’s distinct voice transcends time and place taking listeners to the root of evil and temptation.
“I wrote that specifically for the show. You hear that song immediately after the realization that the mine blew up and that's what it was written for. It functions very well in that capacity in the show and it works pretty good as a song as well.”
Though the mine has been closed since 2012, the haunting stories of the victims and survivors live on through Earle’s songs. “It’s About Blood” presents the anger of a man who lost three family members that day.
“The whole first verse is about a guy named Tommy Davis. He was the guy who really got into the news, would talk to the news, really got into their faces and wanted them to answer questions.” The high intensity track ends with Earle saying the names of all of the victims.
Songs about coal mining are a large part of roots music, and a subject Earle says he has always been drawn to, but was really exposed to when he moved to Tennessee from Texas.
Earle famously ran away from home at a young age to move to Houston looking for his songwriting idol Townes Van Zandt. “I knew what was going on in Austin but ZZ Top, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Townes Van Zandt were in Houston, so I went to Houston.”
“When I got to Nashville, the biggest shift in gears for me, and I think for Guy Clark and some of the other Texans too, was we were exposed to all of this music from the eastern part of the United States. A lot of it originated from Scotland and Ireland and it was played in those mountains where they were taking coal out of the ground,” he says.
“The other people I met when I got here, besides Guy and Steve Young were John Hartford and Sam Bush, the younger guys in the bluegrass world, and that started seeping into my music. There's a long tradition of songs about coal mining.”
Ghosts of West Virginia is due out on May 22 on New West Records but is available for preorder now.
“Normally I would be out right now playing record stores all over the country,” says Earle, who regularly plays Houston's Cactus Music when promoting new work. “It's about the people that music is most important to and those are the people that are going to support mom and pop record stores,” says Earle. “Vinyl made a resurgence because it is irreplaceable and so is live music.”
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“Eventually, I need for the world to open back up so I can go play for audiences; that's what I do. Guy Clark told me a long time ago, ‘Songs aren't finished until you play them for people.'”
In the meantime, though, Earle is practicing social distancing and staying at home in Tennessee.
“We will be back out next summer and I believe we will be out next summer with all my heart. We will be out supporting this record, I'm not going to release another record until I get these people's stories told. I'm doing all that I can for independent record stores now virtually and then probably, we're going to look at doing something as we tour.”
When asked how he is occupying his time at home Earle says he keeps busy working on various projects, including his memoir. “I work every day. That’s one thing I learned from Guy Clark, I get up and try to make something every day.”