Steve Earle, Drive-By Truckers & The Music of “White Men without College Degrees”

The Curmudgeon on Truckers, Miners & the Music of Democracy

Music Features The Curmudgeon
Steve Earle, Drive-By Truckers & The Music of “White Men without College Degrees”

If you’ve been reading the commentary about November’s election, you’ve often come across this phrase: “white men without a college degree.” This is a group of voters who gave large majorities to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson before swinging their support to Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. It’s a huge group of voters with even more sway in the electoral college than in the popular vote. We think we know who they are, but do we really?

For example, all the following are white men without a college degree: Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Chris Stapleton, Steve Earle, Justin Townes Earle, Ketch Secor, Tyler Childers, Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell and Mike Cooley. None of them will be supporting Trump this fall, and yet all of them have been described as speaking for the working man. Do they really?

Every opinion poll of the past four years has confirmed that these singers’ opinions coincide with those of a minority of white men without a college degree but are far from those of the majority. Nonetheless, the critics who argue that these artists are giving voice to those men are onto something. No other songwriters describe the actual lived life of white men without a college degree with such sharp detail, such unblinking realism and such authentic language.

It’s all there: the tensions with spouses and children; the tedium of work on an assembly line, a cubicle desk or a retail counter; the pile of unpaid grocery bills and doctor bills on the kitchen table; the physical danger of manual labor; the one-sided negotiations with the boss; the pipe or the pill to cope with it all. And also the bright moments: dancing with a handsome woman at the VFW hall, playing catch with the son in the backyard, the barbecue party on the deck, singing in the church choir, driving fast down the two-lane blacktop.

So who is really the spokesman for white men without a college degree? Is it the artist who agrees with their support for the president? Is it the hot-country singer, the heavy-metal guitarist or the big-time rapper who offers comforting fantasy in the form of swimming-hole clichés or violent revenge? Or is it the songwriter who mirrors the daily life and earthy language of these men?

That’s the difference between popular art and democratic art. The former gives the audience what it wants to hear; the latter shows the audience how they’re actually living. The former provides an escape from reality; the latter provides an entrance. The former promises that getting loaded, getting laid and getting paid will solve all your problems. The latter insist that only joint struggle will.

It’s often difficult for democratic artists to connect with their intended audience. When I interviewed Steve Earle for Paste last year, he said his next project, the songs for a documentary stage production called Coal Country would address this problem.

“This time I’m going after hearts and minds in the heartland of America,” Earle said, “rather than preaching to the choir. I’ve preached to the choir, and I’m glad I have, but now it’s time to talk to someone other than the NPR crowd on the two coasts who are my audience. It’s time to talk to people who may have voted for Trump but might not again. If I go in and play music I care about in a way that they may care about, it might work.”

Coal Country opened at the Public Theater in New York in February and was intended to go from there to Appalachia in April and May. The coronavirus pandemic changed everything, of course, but Earle’s seven songs from the show (plus three other related pieces) have now been released as an album, Ghosts of West Virginia.

It’s his best batch of new songs since his 2011 New Orleans album, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. There’s something about a particular geography with a particular set of problems that seems to draw Earle out of himself and into the kind of stories and characters that are his greatest strength. To support the stage play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, who distilled hours of interviews with coal miners and their families into a 90-minute show, Earle took on the voices of those same people.

For the play, Earle sat on stage with his acoustic guitar, banjo and mandolin and sang the songs solo. For the album, Earle took his road band, the Dukes, into the studio and recorded the songs in every style from bluegrass to rockabilly, grunge-blues to old-time country.

In fact, the album is sequenced to trace the history of West Virginia music, beginning with an a cappella hymn (“Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”), continuing through an old-time, mountain-country song (“Union, God and Country”) and a growling banjo blues (“Devil Put the Coal in the Ground”) to a bouncy bluegrass tune (“John Henry Was a Steel Drivin’ Man”) and an Appalachian ballad with fingerpicking guitar (“Time Is Never on Our Side”).

These early songs have the repeating lines, simple chord changes and sturdy rhymes of songs handed down by oral transmission rather than recordings. Even though they’re new compositions, they feel like the tunes miner families passed down from generation to generation and sang from their pews and porches. This is part of Earle’s strategy; he puts rural listeners at ease with familiar sounds and then reminds them of truths that were once obvious in the hollers: the union and the government are your only protections against the company that views you as a beast of burden.

When Earle rewrites the famous folk song “John Henry,” he recapitulates the original story of the railroad worker who challenged a steam drill to see who could dig a tunnel the fastest. John Henry won but died from the strain of winning. “It didn’t change nothin’,” Earle sings, “but heaven knows he tried.”

The steam drill took over, followed by even bigger machines, and “John Henry coulda told ‘em what that means.” The only thing that can change the conditions of the human workers is the union, Earle sings. “West Virginia miners voted union to a man; you’d never know it now, but that was then.”

That’s the sly question woven into many of these songs: the union and government programs once saved your ass, so why are you turning your back on them now? Such questions aren’t going to make Earle a popular artist among miners who would rather blame the Chinese or the environmentalists for their problems. But Earle evokes their lives so vividly that he’s the most democratic of songwriters.

The miners interviewed for the Coal Country stage play were all connected somehow to the Upper Big Branch Mining Disaster of April 5, 2010, when 29 of 31 miners were killed in an explosion in the Massey Energy mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia. It was the first non-union mine on the mountain, and safety complaints (later confirmed by a government investigation) had been rampant.

Earle addresses the catastrophe directly in the album’s most powerful song, “It’s About Blood,” which proves a song can do something that journalism, government investigations and history books can’t: it can makes us feel the human beings behind the statistics.

“Goddamn right, I’m emotional,” Earle bellows over thudding drums and droning fiddle. “I ain’t nothin’ but a man…. Tell yourself it was an accident, isolated incident, part of the job. Yeah? Tell that to the families, kids without daddies. Tell it to God.” The song climaxes with a recitation of 29 names delivered in a hip-hop cadence.

Almost as powerful is “If I Could See Your Face Again,” which is sung on the album not by Earle but by his fiddler Eleanor Whitmore. It’s the musical monologue of a miner’s widow, who uses a pretty folk melody to make us see the face of the absent husband she’s singing to. “If I could see your face again,” she sings, “black with coal until your grin cuts like sunshine through the shadow of the mountain…. But tonight’s just like the night before, ain’t nobody walkin’ through that door.”

The Drive-By Truckers also believe that the once-tight weave of unions, democracy and community spirit in Appalachia and the Upper South has been pulled apart by union-busting, gun violence, political demagogues, opioids, methamphetamine and cynical evangelists. That’s why the Alabama band calls its new album The Unraveling. And just as Earle used the folkloric musics of the region to tell his stories, the Truckers use the more recent sound of Southern rock to make the same points.

Patterson Hood sets the scene on “21st Century USA” by describing a typical strip mall near a typical interstate over a melancholy folk-rock arrangement spiced by lonesome fiddle and squiggly electric guitar. Hood rattles off the names of the national franchises that have replaced locally owned businesses and have shattered the glue of community.

Instead of ordering your food at Annie’s Café from the police chief’s smiling wife moonlighting as a waitress, you now order it from a stoned teenager at Applebee’s. And the factories, warehouses and offices have become just as depersonalized. “Men working hard for not enough at best,” Hood sings. “Women working just as hard for less. They get together late at night at bars, bang each other just like crashing cars.”

How do the men and women caught in this trap react? They shoot guns. They shoot heroin. They shoot the shit in dive bars, laughing about the Mexican babies in cages down by the border. They shoot daggers from their eyes when they argue with the spouse. They jump in the car in Vicksburg with nothing more than 20 dollars in gas, a Bible and a gun, heading for Memphis, as if that might somehow change everything. The Unraveling has a song for each of these reactions.

Hood wrote seven of the album’s nine songs, but the band’s co-founder Mike Cooley wrote one of the best. “Slow Ride Argument” describes the situation when your lover’s mood is “a hornet’s nest,” and you feel “the clenching creeping into your fist.” Sounding like the best Rolling Stones song in decades, the pushy guitar riffs conjure up the escalating pressure, but Cooley pleads with the man, “Don’t go taking it out on anything but the highway. Let her go, my friend; let the outside air in.”

Even better is Hood’s “Thoughts and Prayers,” the title taken from every speech by every NRA-beholden politician after every mass shooting in America. It begins with an uptempo strummed acoustic guitar and builds to a Southern-rock hymn, just as it begins with a description of a school shooting and builds to a confrontation with those politicians.

In the classroom, “you could hear the cellphones ringing” and smell the “gun powder in the air.” At the song’s end, Hood imagines that the survivors of all those shootings, even the students who just had to go through countless lockdown drills, will not only vote those right-wingers out of office but will also “perp walk them down the Capitol steps,” as onlookers shout, “Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers.”

The song is a kind of sequel to “What It Means,” the equally powerful meditation on American violence (against unarmed young black men, in that case) on the Truckers’ previous album, 2016’s American Band. That song prompted an internet backlash against the band by longtime fans who resented a turn from colorful stories about the South to political material. This was silly, for the band had been explicitly critical of Ronald Reagan back in the day and of all his heirs ever since.

But it also revealed a fundamental paradox about making music for “white men without a college degree.” How can one write colorful stories about the South today—or any day—without writing about the class, race and gender issues that tint every tale? Well, you can, but you will have to paint the stories with such garish colors that narratives will have no correspondence to real life. That’s popular art.

Earle and the Drive-By Truckers have refused that option and have given us an Appalachia and a South, a whole America, you can find 10 minutes off any interstate. That’s democratic art, and it’s the art we need, even if it’s not always the art we want.

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