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.
A nice, chugging bit of country-like indie rock, and right away one of the fun things is that we’re talking about New York City here. The juxtaposition is purposeful, and while Earle’s dad Steve has done a bit of this, the senior Earle has been less inclined to make out-and-out country music since moving in to Manhattan in the mid ’00s.
A nice, chugging bit of country-like indie rock, and right away one of the fun things is that we’re talking about New York City here. The juxtaposition is purposeful, and while Earle’s dad Steve has done a bit of this, the senior Earle has been less inclined to make out-and-out country music since moving to Manhattan in the mid ’00s. The son however is clearly on a mission to give listeners a good helping of cognitive dissonance as he deals, on his new album, with rivers and trains and other country-music-like subjects in the context of a gritty, crowded urban landscape.
Another point of dissonance: this chipper-sounding toe-tapper tale is a tale of someone apparently planning his suicide, jumping into the aforementioned Harlem River. Earle, with an agreeable, textured voice, gives himself a huge choir to back up his declaration and, not to make light of it, but if you’ve gotta go, that’s the way to go. Maybe the narrator is so beaten down by life he’s charged up by the idea of ending it, or maybe he’s finding a renewed interest in living via his specific ideas about where he wants to die, but he’s got style either way. Another layer at work here is that Townes Van Zandt, the revered but troubled songwriter after whom the younger Earle is named, had a long flirtation with suicide himself. Yet more subtext: Earle, still just 28, has a previous history of drug addiction, like his father.
“Harlem River Blues” is the title track to Earle’s fourth album, released this month on Bloodshot Records. MP3 via Bloodshot; thanks to Largehearted Boy once more for the lead.
A sweeping, melancholy ballad with solid (but not annoying) country-western roots, “Gunslinger” tells a woeful tale with care, finesse, and canny harmonies. Constructed without a chorus, the song steadfastly repeats an eight-measure melody, with some instrumental breaks, all the while building in intensity both musically and lyrically. I like the great combination of deliberation and power on display, which gives this slower-paced song a vehemence normally achieved, in rock, through speed and volume. And the male-female harmonies are not just a boon but may well be the ultimate key to how well “Gunslinger” works, adding to the song’s pathos and musicality simultaneously. The all-male Medders employed singer Priscilla Jeschke for the job; note she is also lead singer Cheyenne Medders’ girlfriend.
The Medders are a quartet from Nashville featuring three brothers–Cheyenne, Carson, and Will–who themselves are the sons of singer/songwriter Jule Medders. Their self-titled, self-released, and self-assured debut album is scheduled for a September release.