CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Creating empathy is part of Steve Earle’s job.
The singer-songwriter, who first caught the public’s attention with his 1986 album “Guitar Town,” said he uses his music to tell the stories of people and lives that others may not understand.
“Empathy is how you bring people into your songs,” he told MetroNews from his Nashville home. “They don’t care about what happened to you; they care about what happened to you that they can relate to. It’s one of those things. They care about the common human experience, not the extraordinary human experience so much.”
Evidence of Earle’s ability to build connections includes “Copperhead Road” — a song about a family of moonshiners based on a newspaper article Earle read about moonshiners-turned-marijuana growers — and “Harlan Man” — a bluegrass tune about coal mining in eastern Kentucky.
It is also evident on Earle’s latest album with his band The Dukes, “Ghosts of West Virginia,” and the off-Broadway play “Coal Country.” Both address the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in which 29 coal miners died.
Much of the music on “Ghosts of West Virginia” appears in “Coal Country,” as Earle serves the play’s musical director.
Jessica Blank and Erik Jenson wrote the show for the Public Theater in New York City. Blank and Jenson can recall the news coverage of the explosion in 2010.
“We were really moved by the story,” said Blank, who is also the play’s director. “I remember having a conversation as we were watching the coverage and talking about that we might want this to be a play.”
Plans surrounding “Coal Country” did not start until 2015. Blank and Jenson knew they wanted Earle to write the show’s music; Earle had worked with the married playwrights on “The Exonerated,” a 2000 play about wrongfully-convicted inmates on death row.
“I see Steve’s work as kind of like Walt Whitman or Lead Belly or Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger,” Jenson said. “He’s just a chronicler of the American condition, and I just couldn’t think of a better storyteller to join our little conspiracy.”
“I’ve been compared to most of those people,” Earle responded. “Never Walt Whitman, that’s a new one. I kind of like that one.”
The trio visited southern West Virginia in 2016 to research the region and conduct interviews; remarks from interview subjects ended up the play’s script.
“We just went into people’s homes and talked to them about what happened to their men,” Jenson said.
“I come from rural Minnesota, but culturally, there’s not much more than a lake between West Virginia and where I grew up. I grew up in a town of 8,000. Most people worked with their hands.”
Earle previously wrote about coal mining on “The Mountain,” his 1999 collaborative project with The Del McCoury Band, yet the songs focused on mining in Kentucky. Earle said the interviews helped him understand the uniqueness of the coal industry in West Virginia.
“This was the first non-union mine on that mountain, and this very property had belonged to Peabody Coal, which was a union company,” he said of the Upper Big Branch mine. “I learned that sitting in the first interview I sat in on.”
Jenson mentioned his favorite of the album’s songs, “It’s About Blood.” The song — in which Earle names the victims of the explosion — includes the line: “Once upon a time in America/Workin’ man knew where he stood/Nowadays, just gettin’ by is a miracle/Probably couldn’t give it up if I could.”
“I think everybody is feeling that right now,” Jenson said. “People are hurting, and I think the album speaks to that community but also to the heart of what’s going on in working-class America right now.”
Blank said she wants audiences to have an “emotional experience” and connect to what the victim’s families went through following the mine disaster.
“The play is about UBB, but it’s also a microcosm to what’s happening to the whole country,” she said. “It’s about what happens when you put profits over human lives and when you’ve got guys at the top that are more interested in the bottom line than they are interested in protecting people’s basic safety and dignity.”
Earle agreed, citing Blank’s criticism of people who think they are better than those who come from rural and economically-disadvantaged areas.
“I’m a lefty who lives in New York City. I’ve lived there for 15 years, and I was a lefty long before I lived there. I’m unapologetic about my politics,” Earle mentioned. “I do understand, intellectually, that other people’s politics are not the same as mine, and I was as guilty as a lot of people were of becoming intolerant of other people’s politics. I think we’ve reached a point where we just simply cannot do that anymore.”
Earle added people do not vote with their pocketbooks, but “with their hearts.”
“It comes down to don’t go talking about how people in a certain part of the country make their living and talk about it being bad and needs to stop unless you’re willing to offer an alternative,” he said.
Performances of “Coal Country” are on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic; Blank and Jenson have been living in upstate New York, while Earle left New York City for Nashville. All three remain hopeful not only performances will resume, but the play will come to West Virginia.
“If I got to drive a flatbed truck out there myself, I’ll do it,” Jenson joked.
“Ghosts of West Virginia” went on sale May 22, and Earle has no plans to release another album until he completes a tour promoting his latest work.
“I hope this will be Groundhog Day and that we’ll get the play back up this winter some time,” he said. “My plan is to go out next summer on the same schedule I would have been on this summer and tour to support this record.”
Earle’s original plan consisted of four stops in West Virginia, including an appearance at West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Mountain Stage.
“You’ll see a lot of us in West Virginia,” Earle added.