The singer-songwriter Steve Earle has a new album out in which he sings about the worst mining disaster in the United States in 40 years.
On April 5, 2010, the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, owned by coal giant Massey Energy, exploded. Twenty-nine workers. Four years later, Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, which had been fined nearly $400,000 in the year before the explosion for repeated and serious safety violations, was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly conspiring to violate mine safety rules, conspiring to cover up those violations, and providing false statements about Massey’s safety record. He faced more than 31 years in prison. He ended up being convicted of one misdemeanor and only served a year in prison.
Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen have produced a play about the Upper Big Branch disaster, with Steve Earle writing the songs for the show. Coal Country, based on interviews with miners who survived and relatives of those who did not, opened at the Public Theater in New York City in early March. The work featured Steve Earle as sort of a Greek chorus with a guitar.
Unfortunately, the play was postponed after two weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, Steve Earle and his band, The Dukes, have released a new album, Ghosts of West Virginia, which includes these songs and several others.
In the song “It’s About Blood,” Earle names the dead. He contrasts the underground life of the miners with the vast profits of the company:
“Don’t want to hear about the state of the economy / Fiscal reality, profit and loss / None of that matters when you’re underground anyway / Damn sure can’t tell me nothin’ ’bout cost.”
At the end of the song, Earle recites a list of the names of the 29 men killed in the Upper Big Branch mine.
Other songs speak of the loss and anger felt by surviving relatives. The Dukes’ violinist, Eleanor Masterson, sings “If I Could See Your Face Again” which poignantly puts a widow’s grief into song. This deserves to become a country music classic.
There is a theme running through the album of the importance of a trade union in preserving the health, safety and lives of workers. Steve Earle reminds us of the radical history of West Virginia miners, “When the union came and tried to make a stand”.
“My daddy was a miner / My daddy’s daddy too/ They struck the mine/ And walked the line/ ‘Cos that’s just what you do”.
Unable to do a proper launch of the album because of the virus, Steve Earle did an on-line, solo performance of the songs interspersed with commentary and explanation, sponsored by the United Mine Workers, the Teamsters and the American Federation of Teachers. Three times he says “If you got a boss, you need a union!”. Three chords and the truth.
Steve Earle challenged himself to write songs that would relate to people who may not align with him politically.
“One of the dangers that we’re in is if people like me keep thinking that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist or an asshole, then we’re fucked, because it’s simply not true. So this is one move toward something that might take a generation to change. I wanted to do something where that dialogue could begin”.
The launch concert is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5QqgJ3u11k&feature=emb_rel_pause
You can listen to the full album here: https://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_navb623GYcrADi38O1FTkPxQWZo5B8WqI