Season 4, Episode 1
Coal Country + Steve Earle


Photo by Tom Bejgrowicz

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,” Steve says. “And then I was in it twice as an actor when it finally went up in New York.”

So when Jessica and Erik asked if he would collaborate on a project based on the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, Steve 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 Jessica 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.”


Photo by Diana Davis

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 twenty-nine names comes from a long tradition of protest marches. You know, ‘say their names,’” points out playwright and actor Erik 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 Jessica. “When he says those twenty-nine names in the show every night he’s calling them in.”

For Steve 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 Steve. “I’m just terrified that if I left one out I’d never be able to forgive myself.”