After 38 years and 950 shows, Mountain Stage co-founder Larry Groce recently stepped down as the show's host. But before he handed over hosting duties to Kathy Mattea, Groce went out in style hosting a final sold-out show featuring long-time friend, country outlaw, and fellow Texan, Steve Earle.
The parting was indeed sweet sorrow as Earle and his band The Dukes, due to a tour deferred, got to finally come play songs from their critically acclaimed 2020 album, Ghosts of West Virginia. Earle, who Groce introduced as one of the most multi-talented people to ever be featured on Mountain Stage, wrote the album after interviewing families and survivors from the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia. The 2010 explosion killed 29 miners and became the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in the country since 1970.
Earle said these coal mining songs wrote themselves after he and playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen came to West Virginia to interview families for their documentary theater piece Coal Country, which featured several of his songs. "Every word you hear in the show is directly from the mouths of people who lived it," Earle said. "They tell the stories of growing up where they did and generations of coal families. They knew something was wrong with UBB. Everybody talked about where they were when word came down from the mountain that something had gone terribly wrong."
The generational curse of the high price of coal's yoke rode heavy on "Devil Put the Coal in the Ground," as Earle banged on the banjo and The Dukes wielded a slippery, knifed slide guitar and heavy tom-toms like a nine-pound hammer. "Well, the Devil put the coal in the ground," Earle sings. "I'll double dog dare you to follow men down, devil put the coal in the ground."
Earle has carried more than his weight in sorrow as his last album J.T., released January 2021, paid homage to his oldest son and beloved Americana singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, who died in August 2020. With his empathy muscle pounding fire, Earle unleashed "It's About Blood," a song about Tommy Davis, a miner who survived the UBB disaster but lost his son, brother, and nephew in the blast.
"The morning after UBB it was national news for about 30 seconds," Earle said. "One person we saw that morning, Tommy Davis ... He lost his son, his brother, and his nephew, and he was there and had just come up top. He was angry, he was talking. He was asking questions, because he wanted answers." "It's About Blood" ended with Earle using up what felt like the last of his voice and soul hollering out the names of the 29 miners who died at the Upper Big Branch Mine.
Like a wrestler tagging a partner Earle tossed over to bandmate Eleanor Whitmore (also one half of The Mastersons) to put a mournful Celtic cry into the ballad "If I Could See Your Face Again," the song about Patti Stover's loss of her fiancé that ends Coal Country. And after Earle's signature closer "Copperhead Road," Groce let it be known there were special guests in the audience. "Some of the folks that Steve interviewed for that show are here tonight and I hope they enjoyed it," he said.