Review: Erik Vincent Huey Takes an Unflinching Look at West Virginia’s Forgotten People in ‘Appalachian Gothic’

Erik Vincent Huey
Appalachian Gothic
(The Orchard/Appalachian AF)
4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

“Just can’t escape the Appalachian Blues,” Erik Vincent Huey growls on the opening track to his first solo album.

And he should know.

The one-time member of outlaw country rockers, The Surreal McCoys, grinds out 13 tunes whose lyrics reflect the obstacles and dead-end lives around the “forgotten people” who work in the West Virginia mines, the area where Huey was raised. He understands these folks, their way of life, and their sense of abandonment by politicians and the rest of the country. That knowledge is infused in every gritty guitar chord and gruff vocal on this relentlessly honest set.

But as dark as the subject matter is, Huey along with shotgun riding producer/player/co-songwriter Eric “Roscoe” Ambel frames the detailed lyrics with melodies and playing as gutsy as the concepts. Huey sticks to vocals, letting “Roscoe” handle the guitar work and the overall swampy sonic approach. That allows the singer to put his efforts into expressing the anger, fear, and frustration of his protagonists. He takes the voice on some of them in selections like the killing drifter who burns down part of a town in the ominous, reverbed swamp of “Death County.”

It’s not all gloom and doom though as the upbeat twang of “You Can’t Drink All Day” (If you don’t drink in the morning) takes a humorous look at the serious issue of alcoholism (I’m told normal people/they don’t live like this), which lightens the mood somewhat. Then there’s child abuse as Huey again takes the first person on “Dead Dad” (The only gift he gave me/Was a lifetime full of rage), and the lost hope of mining unions for “The Battle of Uniontown.” It’s one of many selections that nods to Steve Earle’s similar musical and vocal approach.

The album’s physical and philosophical centerpiece is the spoken word “The Bride of Appalachia.” Here, with sparse accompaniment from Ambel’s dulcimer, harmonium, and cajón, Huey recites Coal:it was always a bad deal…opioids and corn squeezin /they’re the only bridge outta here… with dry, bone-chilling gravity.  Riveting stuff.

It’s not an easy listen but Huey and Ambel have created a taut, tight-fisted, often devastating song cycle with enough musical turns to never feel overly oppressive. Ultimately it’s Huey’s vision and his story as the closing “A Coal Miner’s Son” makes clear, ending this mesmeric album with the words These rugged brown hills keep calling me home.

Hearing Appalachian Gothic is like spending time amongst the people of this region. It’s a major work, one best experienced in one sitting where the listener can let Huey and Ambel’s talents engulf them in the portentous atmosphere created over this moving, unvarnished, and unforgettable 43-minute opus.   

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