Singer-Songwriter Steve Earle extends tribute to Upper Big Branch disaster victims in theater play, studio album

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BECKLEY, WV (WVNS) — They say music “soothes the soul” and “tells tall tales,” but it can also help further look into one’s history. Steve Earle can attest his musical creativity to his love for books.

“A lot of times, the songs I wrote in the ’70’s… I spent a lot of time in the libraries,” Earle said.

As one of those singing historians, Earle uses his talents to perform at The Public Theater in New York City. He appears in the theater’s production of Coal Country, which centers on the stories surrounding the Upper Big Branch (UBB) Mine Disaster.

Since its first performance in March, the play appeals to fans of theater, native West Virginians, and even to the families of those who perished 10 years ago.

“I call off the roll of the 29 guys that died at UBB,” Earle said. “That night [with the families in attendance], I almost didn’t get through those names. It was really, really, really tough.

“But that’s what this job is. It’s about how people feel. It’s about telling other people’s stories, not just your own.”

While the Nashville and New York native has no roots in West Virginia, he decided to take this music from the stage to the recording studio.

In May 2020, Earle released his 18th studio album, Ghosts of West Virginia, whose tracks are fine tuned to the state’s history — from the town of Talcott’s Big Bend Tunnel, to the namesake of Charleston’s airport, and most of all, the coal industry.

“Not everybody in West Virginia has a job in coal… Not everybody can get a job in coal, and not everybody that goes down in a mine can do it,” Earle said. “That’s why people are so proud of doing this job.”

Seven of the album’s ten songs are from Coal Country. But like the play, Earle also pays tribute to West Virginia’s communities built on coal and the families of the UBB victims.

“People process grief differently and at different rates… I heard them,” Earle said. “Music can make you feel like somebody else feels the same way that you did. And I think that can be therapeutic in times like these.”

Rolling Stone Magazine described Ghosts of West Virginia as the “most tightly focused and thematically driven collection” of Earle’s career, adding that it “offers a powerful image of American tragedy” with its focus on the UBB disaster.

Ghosts of West Virginia is now available for purchase and streaming on Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, SoundCloud, YouTube Music, and Deezer.

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