Steve Earle & the Dukes announced today that they will be recording an album of songs written by Justin Townes Earle with 100% of artist advances and royalties going to a trust for Justin’s daughter, Etta St. James Earle. It is expected that the album will be recorded in October and released in January, 2021, around the time of what would have been Justin’s thirty-ninth birthday. More details to be announced shortly.
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Earle, the son of Steve Earle and Carol Ann Hunter, released nine albums beginning with 2007’s Yuma on Bloodshot Records. His most recent release was 2019’s The Saint Of Lost Causes on New West Records. Earle was our featured cover artist in our May/June 2019 issue, discussing that album with noted journalist Marissa R. Moss.
American Songwriter offered up two tributes to Justin from those who have known the family for a long time.
Both, Holly Gleason (read) and Paul Zollo (read) offered their thoughts on a talent who was lost too soon.
We spoke to Steve for his last album, here is an except of another project that meant a lot to him.
“This job of mine is about empathy,” says singer-songwriter Steve Earle. “All art is about empathy.” Since releasing Guitar Town, his now-classic debut album, 34 years ago, Earle has become particularly adept at his job, giving voice to those most in need of being heard: the underdogs, the outcasts, the falsely accused or unjustly sentenced. The lonely. The lost. The victims — of circumstance, their own bad judgment or someone else’s greed.
But on his latest album, The Ghosts of West Virginia, which contains seven songs written for the play Coal Country, Earle wanted to do more than drum up sympathy for the 29 miners who died in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine disaster and the families they left behind.
“I was looking for a project that would give me a way to speak to, and maybe even for, people who didn’t vote the way I did,” Earle explains from his New York home, while gently strumming his mandolin after applying a rawhide string damper. “What I’m hoping to accomplish is to let these people know that I hear them … [and] I want other people like me to understand who these people are, and why their lives are the way they are and why they believe what they believe.
“The biggest problem that we’ve got in this country,” he adds, “is that everybody thinks everybody else is the enemy.”
Earle was already familiar with the region when documentary playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, with whom he’d previously collaborated on The Exonerated, tapped him to write songs for Coal Country(whose month-long Broadway run was cut short by New York’s COVID-19 shutdown). In fact, the play, in which Earle’s songs wrap around monologues written completely from interviews with the two survivors and families of those lost, includes one song he wrote 20 years ago: “The Mountain.”
Its last line, “There’re ghosts in the tunnels that the company sealed,” would seem eerily prescient — if Upper Big Branch hadn’t been just the latest in a long history of U.S. mining disasters. West Virginia, the only state located completely in Appalachia, was also the site of the nation’s worst, with 362 fatalities.
Several songs on The Ghosts of West Virginia examine mining’s heavy toll. “Black Lung” contains the lines, “If I’d have never been down in a coal mine/Lived a lot longer, hell, that ain’t a close call/But then again I’d a never had anything/And half a life is better than nothin’ at all.”To those who can’t fathom why anyone would risk their life descending deep into the earth just to scratch out a living, Earle answers, “It’s good money. And even when it wasn’t good money, it was the only good money.
“The myth is that everybody [in mining regions] voted for Trump because they’re all working in coal,” he says. “One in 1,000 people in these areas have a job in coal. And the coal jobs are the only decent jobs that there are. It’s a drag; what there’s more of is OxyContin and unemployment.” (He addresses the area’s opioid crisis in “The Mine,” the first song he wrote after visiting West Virginia with the playwrights.)
But coal is as deeply embedded into the region’s culture as anthracite veins are in the earth’s crust. Generations of men have followed their elders into the mines; like firefighters or police officers, it’s who they are, Earle explains.
“It’s a tribe and they’re very proud of what they do,” he says. “And they should be; not everybody can do it.”
The rest of that story can be found here and in our issue archives.