Coal Country’s run at New York’s Public Theater has been cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. But Steve Earle is still abundantly enthusiastic about Ghosts of West Virginia, the album that came alongside the production and is premiering exclusively below. The songs scored him a Drama Desk Awards nomination for outstanding music in a play.
“We had a hit,” Earle, who performed his songs in the play as “a kind of Greek chorus,” tells Billboard. “People were buying tickets. We were only open officially for a week when it closed, so I feel like we were just at the beginning of it.”
Coal Country and Ghosts of West Virginia — which features six songs from the play plus an additional four tracks recorded with his band the Dukes and comes out Friday (May 22) — are the culmination of nearly four years of work for Earle and playwrights Jessica Blank, who also directed, and Erik Jensen. Both pieces are steeped in West Virginia coal mining, addressing triumphs and tragedies –most specifically the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010 that killed 29 men — as well as the way it’s woven into the culture of that society.
“I had decided it was time for me to make a record that spoke to the congregation rather than the choir,” Earle, who’s populist, liberal politics made him something of a maverick in Nashville when he began his career with 1986’s Guitar Town. “I’ve done it before, and my beliefs haven’t changed at all. But I really feel that until people like me start trying to understand people that didn’t vote the way I did, and vice versa, we’re in trouble.
“So I really wanted to understand those people (in West Virginia) and write honestly about them and how they feel. I don’t think you really communicate with people unless you understand their lives. That’s the whole point here. Until we create a dialogue that leaves room for people who don’t think the way we do and find out what we have in common, we’re in trouble, and things will continue to get worse.”
Earle, Blank and Jensen built Coal Country and the Ghosts of West Virginia songs out of a trip to West Virginia, interviewing surviving miners and the families of the deceased. In the song “It’s About Blood” Earle even intones the name of each of the dead miners, while the play is built around monologues written by the playwrights for the real-life characters.
With its additional songs, meanwhile, Earle hopes Ghosts of West Virginia fleshes out the story even more than Coal Country.
“West Virginia is kind of a schizophrenic place,” Earle notes. “There’s still a Democratic senator there and a strong trade union history, but things have been changing and everybody voted for Donald Trump. And I know why; Hillary Clinton went to West Virginia and said, “I’m gonna close the coal mines’ and Donald Trump went and said, ‘I’m gonna keep them open.’ People do vote with their pocket books — and there’s nothing wrong with that. And we need to understand that.”
Also key to the situation, Earle says, is understanding what coal meaning means in coal country. “Sustainable energy doesn’t mean a thing in West Virginia,” he says. “West Virginians that work in coal, the only thing they see is other people that work in coal — and make good money doing it. The companies were smart about it. They got rid of the unions and other protections, but they still pay well. And now there’s a generation of younger, non-union miners who haven’t known anything else. Their fathers probably did it. Their grandfathers probably did it. They’re steeped in that culture as deeply as any generation before them.”
Earle is hoping that Coal Country, which began previews on Feb. 18 and had been extended through April 5, will resume at the Public Theater once venues are cleared to re-open in New York. (The Drama Desk Awards are being handed out online on May 31.) Meanwhile he’s back in Tennessee waiting it out and working on theater and television projects. And he’s not interested in another album until Ghosts of West Virginia has its day, Earle says.
“I don’t want to make one until I get these people’s stories told,” he says. “I’m touring next summer to support this record. I didn’t get to do that this year, and that needs to happen before I do anything else.”