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West Virginia Mining Disaster Told Through Steve Earle's Songs


Steve Earle is a star of what's sometimes called Americana music or alt-country. He sings of Americans who often live on the edge. One of his hits tells of a grandson of Appalachian moonshiners who turns to drug dealer.


STEVE EARLE: (Singing) You better stay away from Copperhead Road.

INSKEEP: Another character is a lifelong criminal who is trapped in an alley and decides, for the first time, to pray.


EARLE: (Singing) Said, you don't owe me nothing. And as far as I know, Lord, I don't owe nothing to You. And I ain't asking for a miracle, Lord, just a little bit of luck will do.

INSKEEP: Earle's latest album explores a fading breed of Americans who live within the law but still on the edge, Appalachian coal miners.


EARLE: (Singing) Once upon a time in America, a working man knew where he stood. Nowadays, just getting by is a miracle. Probably couldn't give it up if I could.

INSKEEP: In this case, Earle was inspired by specific people. He wrote most of the songs on "Ghosts Of West Virginia" as music for a play. And the play depicts real life miners who suffered an explosion in 2010. At one point, Earl recites the names of the men who were killed.


EARLE: It's about Carl Acord, Jason Atkins, Christopher Bell, Gregory Steven Brock.

INSKEEP: The play opened earlier this year in New York. It's shut down for now, a victim of the pandemic. But the album is out and available. And Earle talked of it from his home in Tennessee.

EARLE: Upper Big Branch is the name of a coal mine that belonged to Massey Energy Montcoal, W. Va., is the nearest place that has the name. And it was the first non-union mine on that mountain.

INSKEEP: You hear Steve Earle's pro-union politics in that answer.


EARLE: (Singing) My daddy was a miner, my daddy's daddy, too. Union, God and country were all they ever knew.

INSKEEP: He leans pretty far left. He knows that he sings about people who have been voting pretty far right. And he saw his role in the play as an opportunity.

EARLE: For me, it was a gift. I was sitting around trying to figure out where my next record was coming from. And I wanted to make a record that spoke to people that maybe didn't vote the way that I did.


EARLE: (Singing) Union, God and country was all we ever knew.

I'd made the preaching-to-the-choir record several times. And I just felt like it was time for a different dialogue or we're in really bad trouble. And all of a sudden, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen called me.

INSKEEP: Blank and Jensen are the husband and wife writing team behind the play called "Coal Country."

EARLE: They do a thing called documentary theater where they make plays based on interviews with real people telling their stories. In this case, they wanted to travel to West Virginia and talk to people that had survived - meaning, people that were there that weren't killed and the families of the people that died in this explosion. Twenty-nine men died.

INSKEEP: Steve Earle joined the team in West Virginia and listened as they interviewed survivors. He felt that he learned something about the people who mine a fuel that he would much rather do without.

EARLE: Everybody's very proud of the fact that they can do this job. Not everyone can go underground and work. This is like - the longwall, this huge machine taking this high-quality coal, was three miles down in the mine. It took an hour and a half by mantrip, which is the name of the little trains, the little vehicles that carried miners out - you rode an hour and a half through these tunnels to get to this point in the mine.


EARLE: (Singing) Well, the devil put the coal in the ground, devil put the coal in the ground. He buried it deep. It'll never be found - devil put the coal in the ground.

The people that have jobs in coal make good money. There's no company store anymore. Unions ended all that long ago. So when they started coming in and mining without unions, they were very smart. They took away all the rules, all the protections, the health care - all of those things. But they continued to pay them really, really good money.


EARLE: (Singing) Said, that'll be a dollar someday. That'll be a dollar someday.

INSKEEP: You can make a six-figure income in a very cheap-to-live state if you're working in a coal mine, right?

EARLE: Absolutely. And so few people, when you look into the numbers in the community, actually have a job in coal because there just aren't that many jobs. But the only people that they see that have anything are miners. So that's the job that everybody wants. And I think the most important thing I wrote, for me, about this subject - there's a song called "Black Lung."


EARLE: (Singing) Black lung never gets better - every breath a little bit harder to draw. Shotgun loaded in the corner - hacking, I'm going to lie here and die of black lung.

There's a line in "Black Lung" that says - it's in the last verse - that says, if I'd never been down in a coal mine, I'd have lived a lot longer. Hell, that ain't a close call.


EARLE: (Singing) But then again, I'd have never had anything.

But then again, I'd have never had anything. And half a life is better than nothing at all.


EARLE: (Singing) Black lung never gets better.

That's the heart of the whole project to me.

INSKEEP: They've accepted the tradeoff.

EARLE: A long time ago. They don't - you know, the maxim is that people vote their pocketbooks. And being more sensitive to that - I still believe that we have to do something different about energy. But that means nothing in West Virginia. And trying to understand that, looking at what we have in common with people in West Virginia - what do I have common with people in West Virginia? - a belief at my core in trade unions. West Virginia was the last place that was practicing that as well as preaching it in the country. And that - now it's falling apart there as well. And 29 guys died immediately as soon as that happens.


EARLE: (Singing) Look me in the eye when you're talking to me, want to see in your soul when you lie. Don't try to tell me that you couldn't foresee what everybody reckoned was a matter of time. It's about fathers.

INSKEEP: I want to mention a song here called "It's About Blood." Late in the song...

EARLE: Right.

INSKEEP: ...You recite the names of all 29 miners.

EARLE: Right.

INSKEEP: I didn't know any of those people. And still, I found it chilling just to hear name after name after name, the way they keep going.

EARLE: You know, what inspired it is the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. And there's that experience when you're walking towards that thing - the moment when you get close enough to read one individual name and realize that they're all names...


EARLE: ...Putting those names in at the end kind of came about from that. It was inspired by the Vietnam Memorial.


EARLE: William Roosevelt Lynch. Nicholas Darrell McCroskey. Joe Marcum. Ronald Lee Maynor. James E. Mooney. Adam Keith Morgan. Rex L. Mullins. Joshua S. Napper.

INSKEEP: The album, inspired by the miners whose names you hear, is called "Ghosts Of West Virginia." Well, Steve Earle, it's a pleasure speaking with you again. Thank you so much.

EARLE: Thank you.


EARLE: Deward Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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