Steve Earle has charted his own path, musical and otherwise, since he arrived in Nashville at age 19. Guitar Town, his 1986 album, was his breakthrough, melding folk, country and rock ‘n’ roll into a fully original new sound and vision. He has since made a mark as an actor, author and released 16 albums, most recently Ghosts of West Virginia, which centers on the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. Noah Lekas spoke with Earle about the power of unionism, the job of empathy and that one time a cop choked him unconscious in Dallas, twice.
[Editor’s note: We were grieved to learn about the passing of Steve Earle’s talented son, Justin Townes Earle, which occurred when Noah Lekas’s interview was being prepared for publication. Noah has previously written about Justin ]
Outlaw songwriter, union man and rogue storyteller Steve Earle takes on the Upper Big Branch explosion and the purple state of coal country with his latest album, Ghosts of West Virginia.
Steve Earle has never been one to skirt a difficult conversation. As the heir apparent to Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark’s brand of folksinger, Earle has built an alt-country legacy mining stories from “life’s other side.” Given Earle’s personal connection to Appalachia, it’s only fitting that Ghosts of West Virginia not only documents the human cost of the UBB tragedy, but also aims to create new dialogue in the unrelentingly whirlwind that is the current political landscape.
“Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” – Steve Earle & the Dukes, from Ghosts of West Virginia:
On April 5, 2010, the Upper Big Branch mine explosion killed 29 workers. One of the worst mining disasters in American history, subsequent investigations revealed over 200 safety violations. At the request of playwrights, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, Earle got involved in both a theater piece called Coal Country and writing the songs that would become Ghosts of West Virginia. Honoring the fallen workers and their families while exploring the red-state and blue-state culture gap isn’t exactly light work, but it is exactly the kind of insider’s perspective on an outsider experience that we’ve come to expect from Earle. In preparation for the theater piece and record, he traveled to West Virginia, spending time with the community, getting to know the friends and families of those lost, personally. That experience, and a lifetime affinity for a good coal song, inspired the album.
Steve Earle and I spoke by phone in early June, two months into the pandemic and almost two weeks after the murder of George Floyd. He wasted no time jumping right into the power of unionism, the job of empathy and that one-time a cop choked him unconscious in Dallas, twice.
PKM: When did you first get interested in coal songs? You were raised in Texas but born a couple hours from the Upper Big Branch, right?
Steve Earle: Yeah, My Dad’s from Texas. He just happened to be in the Army doing this two-year bid during the Korean War. He never left Fort Monroe, Virginia ‘cause he typed 80 words per minute, so a captain snagged him as his typist. I was two months old when we moved back to Texas. My mother is from Tennessee so I would come visit this part of the country when I was growing up. I can remember taking coal back for show and tell (laughs) because I’d never seen it before. They were still burning coal in grates in people’s houses in the 1960s. When I moved here [Nashville] when I was 19, I suddenly knew John Hartford and Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush, a lot of people in the bluegrass world. When I finally got up the balls to make a bluegrass record, which wasn’t until 1999, the album is called The Mountain and there’s a song called, “The Mountain” and a song called, “Harlan Man” that deal with coal mining and trade unions.
“Harlan Man” – Steve Earle & the Del McCoury Band, from The Mountain album:
West Virginia was the most unionized place in America until really recently. The idea that it’s a hard red state, that’s simply not true. It’s a purple state, has a Democratic Senator, he’s a centrist but he’s a Democratic Senator and that’s because of coal. It’s because of trade unionism. UBB was the first non-union mine on that mountain and look what happened, it blew up. I absolutely believe with all my heart the reason it exploded was lack of a trade union to look after those 29 guys.
West Virginia was the most unionized place in America until really recently. The idea that it’s a hard red state, that’s simply not true.
PKM: The safety violations, the criminal liabilities, the evidence looked pretty damn conclusive.
Steve Earle: Without a doubt. The company will tell you the guys voted the union out twice, for one thing they were very smart when they started opening these non-union mines in West Virginia. It was a very heavily unionized state, so people were used to making real money when they worked in coal. The jobs were going away and had been for years because of machines. That’s why the “John Henry” song is there, that’s a West Virginia story about a man and a big machine. This is the story about men and a machine.
“John Henry Was A Steel Driving Man” – Steve Earle, performing live, Jan. 2019:
The continuous miner, that contraption, in this case in a longwall configuration, that’s where the money was. They figured out they could open non-union mines, pay the same thing they were paying the guys in the union days, but they could make a lot more money by making them work 12-hour shifts, no benefits. You know, those big books that Karl Marx wrote? All they say when it gets right down to it is, capitalism is fundamentally oppressive because it depends on a surplus of labor in order to thrive.
PKM: Ghosts of West Virginia reaches beyond your personal politics. Was that an intentional part of the songwriting process?
Steve Earle: I was looking for a way to make a record that maybe spoke to and maybe spoke for the people that didn’t vote the way I did in the presidential election. It is pretty easy to figure out why people in West Virginia voted for Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton went to West Virginia and she said, “I’m gonna close the coal mines.” (laughing) Donald Trump went back and said, “I’m not.” Now the truth is they’re both fucking lying because neither person has the power to open or close a coal mine. You know as well I do, and people in West Virginia know this, it’s the market, that’s what determines when coal mines open or close.
PKM: Growing up, that same equation, people vs profit margins, was pretty evident in Southeastern Wisconsin. Before starting on the album, how aware were you of the change in West Virginia?
Steve Earle: I’ve watched West Virginia go from being the last sort of stronghold of labor in the Eastern United States to the union going completely away over the course of my career, ‘cause I do play there. I was never cognizant that was what was going on, but I noticed things changed and they didn’t get better. Now I go and interview these people and they filled in a lot of the blanks for me. They talked to us because they wanted their stories told. There was nothing in it for them and they didn’t need anything from it. They just did it because they wanted people to know what happened to their loved ones or what happened to them.
I was looking for a way to make a record that maybe spoke to and maybe spoke for the people that didn’t vote the way I did in the presidential election.
PKM: I heard you say, “Empathy is the job” of a songwriter. You’ve been trusted with and told the stories of veterans, Appalachian miners, John Walker and the list goes on, how do you navigate that invisible line between honoring the story and appropriating it? Is that ever a concern of yours?
Steve Earle: I had a friend tell me years ago, I don’t know probably ’88 or ’89, and I had leather on from head to toe and pulled up on my Harley-Davidson. I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was fourteen, but I hadn’t been able to afford one when this guy, well David Olney who was a great songwriter that just passed away last year, he said, “You’re a shapeshifter man.” He said, “When I met you, you were a cowboy, and now you’re all Harley Davidson and shit.” You know, I just never think about that stuff. I travel, the way I talk has changed over the years. It’s kind of fixed to where it is now but you know my Texas accent became more Tennessee when I moved here. I speak differently when I’m in Ireland; my cadences change so people can understand me. (Laughs) You know, it’s just one of those things that I don’t worry about all that stuff so much.
All the jobs I’ve ever had were labor jobs because I didn’t finish high school, that’s what’s available to me when I can’t make a living playing the guitar and singing. So, I do get it. It’s been a long time since I had to do that, and I know how lucky I am. So maybe that’s where some of it comes from? When I run into somebody that working hard for a living, coal miners take a lot of pride in what they do ’cause not everybody can do it. I think coal’s bad for the environment but that doesn’t mean shit in West Virginia and also this coal in this mine was going to China, South America and other places [where] they make steel because we do not make steel in the United States of America. All these are things that we need to talk about, we need to figure out. You know that’s what trade unions are supposed to do. Every place else in the world they are a fundamental component of democracy. Here we’ve been trying to shut them down ever since they started, and we’ve pretty much done it now.
The people that capitalize on things, the people that own things, they just want to have lower costs and pay less taxes, that’s what politically motivates them. We let it get to where it is now. I don’t expect this country to be anything other than a right of center country, so I’ve got to be willing to listen to people that don’t vote the way that I do or democracy dies. And they need to be able to listen to me and we’ve lost the ability to do that. The truth is people in New York, people in West Virginia have more in common than they think they do. For one thing, people in West Virginia still basically believe that trade unions are a good thing. People in New York think trade unions are a good thing. So, they aren’t as different as each other imagines.
All the jobs I’ve ever had were labor jobs because I didn’t finish high school, that’s what’s available to me when I can’t make a living playing the guitar and singing. So, I do get it.
PKM: I’ve lived in a few corners of this country and elements of the blue-collar experience seem pretty universal. Today there are protests from coast to coast, is there any common ground between activists in LA and NYC, and these coal miners? Do you see a connection?
Steve Earle: I do. You know people don’t realize that there’s black folks that work in coal in West Virginia. I know a few of them, but you know it’s a different situation, so they probably feel pretty distant from the situation they see happening in Minneapolis. Take a look at Minneapolis, one of the reasons this is happening is they happen to have a black mayor and he fired these guys immediately. That made a huge difference. That’s a moment that hasn’t happened before. I mean, instantly within hours they were fired. It took a while to bring charges, but they were fired instantly. You’re talking about a city where the African American population is even lower than it is across the country and still, well over 50% of the people being killed by police are African American or Native American in the case of Minneapolis.
PKM: Yeah, its staggering, and the cognitive dissonance. A lot of people who haven’t lived that experience can’t seem to put themselves in those shoes, or even acknowledge what’s happening.
Steve Earle: Well, on my radio show this week, I played a lot of protest songs in support of the people that are out in the streets and in honor of George Floyd. I also read the names of everybody, it was like a non-comprehensive list that NPR published of Africans Americans killed by the police since 2014, and I read every one of those names at the beginning of my show and I remembered at some point, I had this experience. I was choked unconscious by a police officer in Dallas in 1987 and then charged with assaulting the police officer. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been charged with that I didn’t do (laughs).
I was trying to get a drunk member of my own entourage, a guy I grew up with who couldn’t drink and was drunk, I was trying to get him into a cab and an off-duty police officer in uniform moonlighting as security at this gig mistook it for a different situation. He came up behind with a bar hold with a nightstick across my neck and choked me unconscious. He did it twice, he fell over and lost his grip and I started coming to, I started flopping around because that’s what happens when blood rushes back into your brain, and he assumed I was fighting, and he choked me unconscious a second time. So, I know what it felt like when he was laying there on the ground saying, “I can’t breathe.” I remember the lights going out. I remember thinking, “I am going to die here.” What I don’t know, what I don’t have any experience with, because I’ve been sober now 25 years, there was a time in my life when I spent a lot of time looking behind me just because I was paranoid and was usually guilty of something, but I don’t even look behind me for police officers anymore ’cause I don’t do anything wrong and they’re not gonna pull me over. And I don’t think that’s the experience for most African Americans in most of the United States of America.
People don’t give a fuck what you think, they care about what you feel.
PKM: No, absolutely. Look, I know we’ve about reached our time here but I’m curious, what stories do modern songwriters have a responsibility to tell, how should they carry on the folk tradition?
Steve Earle: Well you know what? There’s no responsibility. I have a responsibility because all these people whose story I’m telling, that we went to meet in West Virginia, every single one of ’em owned Copperhead Road at one point in their lives. I knew the area and I knew a little bit more about it and they would talk to me because they knew who I was because of other songs that I had written. That made it possible and also I’m pretty good at writing this kind of song, not everybody is. You know, people that aren’t good at writing like, didactic political songs that are just rhetoric set to music, I do it once in a while. It’s usually half a joke when I do it, like “F The CC” or something like that. I try to make it funny when I do it, and you know it becomes satire at that point. Phil Ochs did that too ya know?
But the most effective stuff is still the stuff where you create a character that people can relate to. The job is empathy and creating a character is the most effective way to tell any kind of story, and especially one that people might consider to be political because it just takes some of the edge off of it. People don’t give a fuck what you think, they care about what you feel. That’s what this job’s about, what you feel and what they feel.