And here’s about the opposite of “nice” singer/songwriter music (see previous review): a rough-edged country stomper that functions simultaneously as a celebration of coal miner grit and an indictment of an industry racked by tragedy and exploitation.
Built upon a plaintive, insistent banjo riff, “The Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” finds the prolific and genre-bending Earle in backwoods mode, putting the instruments of bluegrass in the service of fierce country blues. Earle sings with his harshest growl while the fiddle and banjo articulate a rather terrifying jig. I warned you, it’s not very nice. But it’s arresting.
The lyrical motif is as deft as the situation described is insidious: the idea that coal was placed in such a difficult and unsafe location by none other than the devil himself. The devil of course exists in the human imagination as a being intent on making human life (and afterlife) as miserable as possible, often through the tragic force of temptation. For the sake of coal’s value as a resource, not to mention its role in generating diamonds, mankind has paid a price, at both the individual and the collective levels—there are the various calamities that befall coal miners on the one hand, and the environmental devastation wreaked by the mining industry on the other. And yet there have been benefits too, from a miner’s pride in his challenging line of work, to the way coal powered what has often been framed as “progress.” All this is covered, by implication, in the course of this less-than-three-minute song.
“The Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” is the third of 10 songs on the album Ghosts of West Virginia, released last month on New West Records. The music was inspired by the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia, and was initially created for a theatrical production at the Public Theater in New York City. Entitled Coal Country, the play opened in early March but shut down prematurely due to the pandemic. Earle was the music director and performed his songs on stage during the play.
Steve Earle I trust you know already but if not, please do give his catalog some attention. He has been one of America’s most talented and uncompromising singer/songwriters of the last 30 years, and one who seems always interested in growing as an artist and a human being. I’m partial to his early- to mid-’00s work, most of all Transcendental Blues, but you’ll find rewarding music on pretty much every release.
MP3 via KEXP.