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Steve Earle digs deep to tell coal miners’ stories on stage

The alt-country legend’s new album features songs from his recent musical — and he’s eyeing Broadway next.

Steve Earle grew up seeing plays and musicals at the college where his grandmother worked.
Tom Bejgrowicz

Judging from his four decades of music, you’d never guess alt-country legend Steve Earle is a theater geek. But he is and it goes way back to his roots growing up in Texas.

“Theater has always been kind of a big deal to me because of my grandmother and my high school drama teacher, who was one of the only teachers who didn’t throw me out of class,” Earle says with a laugh.

After her husband died, Earle’s then 60-year-old grandmother, Jewel Earle, began a new career sewing costumes for the theater department at the now-defunct Lon Morris College in Northeast Texas, where she worked for the next 20 years.

“They did great stage work there and I saw all the shows,” Earle, 65, recalls in a phone conversation from Nashville, where he was sheltering in place with his young son John Henry. “I grew up thinking theater was important.”

That feeling never left, and 15 years ago he moved to New York, he says, “specifically to make music for theater.”

Out of the New York theater scene grew the songs for his new album, “Ghosts of West Virginia” (due out May 22 on New West Records). It features music he wrote and performed earlier this year in “Coal Country,” Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s off-Broadway docu-play inspired by the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed 29 men in that state in 2010.

“It’s the story of what happened to these miners and what happened to their loved ones,” Earle says. “I’m really proud of the work we’ve done here.”

(“Coal Country” is not Earle’s off-Broadway debut. He also wrote the music for and acted in Richard Maxwell’s dystopian western “Samara,” which debuted in 2017 at Soho Rep.)

After making a couple of records that he says were “pretty personal,” Earle felt it was time to make another overtly political record but he asked himself, “What kind of record would that be?”

“I’ve made the preaching-to-the-choir record twice [‘Jerusalem,’ ‘The Revolution Starts Now’] and my concern has become that the divisions in the country are so deep that we are in trouble (he used a saltier expression here). So I thought, how do I make a record that speaks to — and maybe if I did it right, for — people who don’t think the way that I do.”

About this time Earle reconnected with Blank and Jensen, the playwriting team behind “The Exonerated,” which tells the stories of six wrongfully convicted inmates. Earle had performed in the play in New York during its original run and later in a 2012 revival. Now the couple wanted to know if he was interested in working on a play about the mine explosion.

He was and the result of the collaboration is “Coal Country,” featuring monologues drawn from interviews with the surviving West Virginia miners, along with the families of the miners who died.

(In a broader, all-encompassing gesture, the album’s cover art by Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick lists the names of towns where miners lost their lives in coal mine disasters or in the coal wars between 1912-1921.)

Steve Earle performs in “Coal Country” earlier this year at The Public Theater in New York.
Joan Marcus

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York’s Public Theater, commissioned the piece, and it opened to critical acclaim on March 3 before closing due to the Covid-19 crisis. Earle’s country-folk-laced songwriting, the play’s lyrical thread, earned him a Drama Desk Award nomination for outstanding music in a play.

The singer-songwriter’s politics are no secret: He’s a liberal and a socialist, a rarity in the small towns that dot coal country. But Earle’s goal was to find common cause with the people of West Virginia. He found that connection in a mutual embrace of trade unions.

“This was the first non-union mine on this mountain and it blew up, and that’s a huge thing to these people because its a huge part of their story,” Earle says. “And right there you have what I was looking for. What do New Yorkers or people in California or Michigan have in common with people in West Virginia? At some point in their history, a belief in trade unions.”

Earle canceled a tour in support of the new album and during the stay in Nashville instead has been assisting with homeschooling his son, who is autistic.

“It’s not just sitting him in front of a computer with the teachers,” Earle says. “I now know way more about how my little boy learns and how he’s taught than I ever did. That’s the upside if there is one during this crisis.”

While Earle will continue making albums with his band The Dukes (“I have bills to pay”), he’s also eager to return to New York and continue pursuing his theater dreams. He’s got several projects in the works and his eye on an even bigger prize.

“I’m working towards a real Broadway musical,” he says. “I’ve hung up my shingle to be a theater composer. That’s what I really want to do.”

Mary Houlihan is a Chicago freelance writer.