is a podcast that turns stories into songs, featuring David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Amanda Shires of The Highwomen, Mary Gauthier, Roxane Gay, Susan Orlean and Katie Melua. You can hear an exclusive preview of next week’s episode featuring the creators of Coal Country and Steve Earle, only at Paste.
Legendary songwriter Steve Earle has a long history advocating against the death penalty, and worked on a play about the issue called The Exonerated with its creators, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.
“I was involved with it as an activist, helping stage readings and as a producer of one reading,” Earle says. “And then I was in it twice as an actor when it finally went up in New York.”
So when Blank and Jensen asked if he would collaborate on a project based on the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, Earle quickly agreed. The three artists traveled to West Virginia to conduct interviews that would become the basis of the musical Coal Country. Like The Exonerated, this show is a piece of documentary theater.
“Basically it’s theater that’s created from the words of real people,” says playwright and actor Blank. “It’s not the sort of writing where we’re making things up. We’re taking 5-600 pages of interview transcripts and weaving and shaping them together into a forty-page play.”
Coal Country also contains songs that Earle wrote in response to the stories, including “It’s About Blood,” which lists the names of each of the miners that died in the explosion.
“The listing of the 29 names comes from a long tradition of protest marches. You know, ‘say their names,’” points out playwright and actor Jensen. “And that was something Steve brought in one day … he started doing the names and I had tears coming out of my eyes and chills going up my spine at the same time.”
“It’s not just a list, it’s an invocation,” says Blank. “When he says those 29 names in the show every night he’s calling them in.”
For Earle, this part of the show is especially difficult, though not because of any problems with his memory.
“I have a mental block about it. There’s a prompter at the back of the room and those names are there because I just couldn’t memorize them … I don’t use a prompter during my gigs. I still remember my songs,” says Earle. “I’m just terrified that if I left one out I’d never be able to forgive myself.”
Coal Country runs at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York until April 17. You can hear “It’s About Blood,” and interviews with Jensen, Blank and Earle on SongWriter.
Ben Arthur (@MyHeart on Twitter) is the creator and host of SongWriter. His latest song, “Persistent Ghosts,” is about traumatic memory.