511 South 8th St.
Waco, TX 76706
Date: Friday Aug 13, 2021 at 08:30 PM Doors: 6:00 PM


Price Levels
There is a $10 minor up charge at the door.
When asked about what drove him to craft his deeply evocative new album, Ghosts of West Virginia, Steve Earle says that he was interested in exploring a new approach to his songwriting. "I've already made the preaching-to-the-choir album," he says, specifically alluding to his 2004 album, The Revolution Starts Now. As anyone as politically attuned as Earle understands, there are times when the faithful need music that will raise their spirits and toughen their resolve. But he came to believe that our times might also benefit from something that addresses a different audience, songs written from a point of view that he is particularly capable of rendering.

"I thought that, given the way things are now, it was maybe my responsibility to make a record that spoke to and for people who didn't vote the way that I did," he says. "One of the dangers that we're in is if people like me keep thinking that everybody 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."

Ghosts of West Virginia centers on the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed twenty-nine men in that state in 2010, making it one of the worst mining disasters in American history. Investigations revealed hundreds of safety violations, as well as attempts to cover them up. The mine's owners agreed to pay more than $200 million in criminal liabilities, and shut the mine down.

In ten deftly drawn, roughly eloquent, powerfully conveyed sonic portraits, Earle and his long-time band the Dukes explore the historical role of coal in rural communities. More than merely a question of jobs and income, mining has provided a sense of unity and meaning, patriotic pride and purpose. As sons followed their fathers and older brothers into the mines, generational bonds were forged. "You can't just tell these people that you're going to shut the coal mines without also telling them what you're going to do to take care of them, to protect their lives," Earle explains. To be sure, Earle's politics have not changed. He believes in sustainable energy sources and ending fossil fuels. "But that doesn't mean a thing in West Virginia," he says. You can't begin communicating with people unless you understand the texture of their lives, the realities that provide significance to their days. That is the entire point of Ghosts of West Virginia.

Earle started working on the album after being approached by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, a playwright team that would eventually create Coal Country, a theater piece about the Upper Big Branch disaster. Earle had previously worked with them on The Exonerated, an Off-Broadway play about wrongfully imprisoned people who ultimately proved their innocence and got released. Earle describes Blank and Jensen as creating "documentary theater," and they received a commission from the Public Theater in New York. They interviewed the surviving West Virginia miners, along with the families of the miners who died, and created monologues for their characters using those words. Working closely with Oskar Eustis, the Public's Artistic Director, they workshopped the songs and text for nearly four years. Earle functions as "a Greek chorus with a guitar," in his words. He is on stage the entire play and, along with his song "The Mountain," performs seven songs from Ghosts of West Virginia. "The actors don't relate directly with the audience," he explains. "I do. The actors don't realize the audience is there. I do." The songs provide personal, historical and social context for the testimony of the play's characters, and, heard on their own, along with the album's three additional songs, they provide a wrenchingly emotional portrait of a world that Earle knows well. "I felt that I could do it because so many of those people own Copperhead Road -- and I talk like this," Earle says in the unreconstructed Texas drawl that has survived moves to Nashville and New York City, where he now lives.

Ghosts of West Virginia opens with "Heaven Ain't Goin' Nowhere," a stark, a cappella spiritual that, in its sound and in its sense, captures the blend of faith and stoicism characteristic of mining communities. Without being explicit, "Union God and Country" nods to the deep union history of the West Virginia mines, a history that is being wiped out. "This was the most unionized place in America until the Nineties," Earle points out. "Upper Big Branch was the first non-union mine in that area and it blew up and killed twenty-nine guys. That's the deal." "Devil Put the Coal in the Ground" is an expression of what Earle calls "a kind of hillbilly mindfulness" - a tough-minded recognition of the dangers of the mining life and the pride of doing such a demanding job in the face of those dangers. "The guy in that song is a miner and he's being real about what he's doing," Earle says. On "John Henry Was a Steel Driving Man," Earle, as so many have done before, takes the folkloric tale of the hammer-wielding hero and updates it for a contemporary world in which automation and union-busting have drained miners' lives of so much of their potential and significance.
Event Details
This show is All Ages
Friday Aug 13, 2021 at 08:30 PM
6:00 PM
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