It's been a long time, maybe forever, since Steve Earle worried about winning a popularity contest.
Perhaps it is that very mixture of stubbornness and honesty, coupled with a commitment to far left-wing American liberalism, that has kept him happy over a career spanning four decades and 20 studio albums. And somehow, kept him relevant.
The streak of rebellion in his blood runs hot in his music. It's not just about Copperhead Road, his biggest commercial hit about moonshine runners in the Appalachians. It's John Walker's Blues - an American kid who fought for the Taliban; it's The Devil's Right Hand - advocating gun control more than 30 years ago. He favours legalised abortion. He's against capital punishment. He's a reformed heroin addict. He's been married seven times.
This week Earle released Ghosts of West Virginia, a 10-song album focused on the Upper Big Branch coalmining tragedy near Montcoal, West Virginia. On April 5, 2010, a methane explosion at the underground mine killed 29 of 31 coalminers on site. The blast was attributed to blatant safety violations by the mine's parent company, Massey Energy, resulting in massive fines and criminal charges.
Earle was invited to create a soundtrack for a play, Coal Country, created by playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, that tells the story of Upper Big Branch mine disaster through the stories of miners and their families.
The play opened in March in New York City, where Earle lives, before closing due to coronavirus restrictions. In the play Earle performed the songs live, acting as an onstage "Greek chorus" to the audience. Earle and his 10-year-old son John Henry headed to Tennessee on March 18 to ride out the coronavirus and they were still there in early May when Earle and I spoke.
The show includes seven of the 10 songs on the Ghosts of West Virginia album.
Perhaps the most powerful song on Ghosts is It's About Blood, a descriptive melody about the working-class miners, the tough reality of today's American economy, family and the mine disaster. It ends with Earle reeling off the full names of all 29 miners killed at Upper Big Branch.
The show and the album honours those miners.
For Earle, the project came at the right time. He was looking for a way to reach the audience that voted for Donald Trump for president - because he sure as hell didn't.
I also believe I've got to learn to listen to people that didn't vote the way I did. And I've got to learn to talk to people who didn't vote the way that I did, or we're f - - - ed.Steve Earle
"My politics haven't changed," he says. "I'm somewhat to the left of Mao Tse-Tung when it comes right down to it. I also believe I've got to learn to listen to people that didn't vote the way I did. And I've got to learn to talk to people who didn't vote the way that I did, or we're f - - - ed.
"This record to me, I was trying to figure out how to make a record that would do that, and then Jessica and Erik called me. I thought this is my chance. This is perfect. I can write this music. This is the music I make anyway. All the people that are characters in Coal Country came to New York to see the show, every one of them. And they all loved it, and they all got it. And that was very gratifying for us.
"But every one of those people own Copperhead Road. Every one of them. And so I just realised I was qualified to speak to those people. Some of them know what my politics are and don't agree with me. But a dialogue is possible. This is chess, it's not checkers. It's not going to happen overnight."
Standout songs from the album include Black Lung, the last song written for the album, but which is not performed in the Coal Country play. Earle admits it has his best lyric line on the album: If I'd never been down in a coal mine, I'da lived a lot longer. Hell, that ain't a close call. But then again I'da never had anything. And half a life is better than nothin' at all.
The album finishes on a strong note with The Mine, the lament of a guy who's always going to get a job in a coal mine that will get him out of his drug-laden poverty-laced existence, telling his girlfriend "hey babe, it's gonna get better when my brother gets me on at the mine."
The album includes one great outlier by Earle, a rockabilly ditty called Fastest Mine Alive, about a West Virginia-born hero, Chuck Yeager, the first human to break the sound barrier, as a test pilot in 1947. Yeager, who's achievements were portrayed in the movie The Right Stuff, is still alive at age 97.
Says Earle in jest about including the tune on the album: "I had to have a song to keep people from killing themselves".
Earle expounded on the current political situation in the US without much prompting. Of the current Trump administration, he said, "Something's gotta change. Trump's actually not the problem. He's a symptom. He's like a great big boil or something that has risen up out of our own neglect. Maybe reality television [which made Trump famous when he starred on The Apprentice] is bad for us. I've always been hard on reality television anyway. It puts actors out of work. It lowers your IQ, i'm pretty convinced of that.
"I had one reality television period in my life. And that was at the very end of when I was out of my mind and still on drugs. I used to hang upside down on an inversion table and smoke crack and watch Cops. As soon as I got clean, I stopped doing that."
Finally, to answer a long-held question, I ask Earle why he uses the word "babe" so frequently in his songs. The legendary storyteller does not disappoint, responding without hesitation: "it's my favourite term of endearment".
"I tell you were I got it from. Townes Dan Zandt used it a lot. 'Won't say i love you babe, won't say I need you babe ... And I won't do you wrong.' [From To Live Is To Fly, by Townes Van Zandt] He and Susanna Clark [Guy Clark's wife] were very close and he always called Susanna babe, much to Guy's chagrin. It my go-to term of endearment."
Which leads into the question of how he feels about women, since he often writes about them in songs. And knowing that he's been married seven times.
"You gotta be careful," he says. "I love women. My best friends have historically been women. It started because when I was in high school I didn't play football and I wasn't good at sports at all, so a guitar was my only hope. I figured the best deal for me was to get yourself declared an honorary girl. I just kind hung out with a lot of really smart girls ... I was the guy who got snuck in the window at the slumber party, so it was a good deal, no doubt about it."