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B.J. Barham and Steve Earle Mingle Empathy and Righteousness On New Albums

Steve Earle and B.J. Barham of American Aquarium

Even before last weekend’s protests and melees around the nation, America’s political fault lines felt like grand canyons and open wounds. And while the caricature of the left-leaning folk singer is an ideologue who sings up-with-we and down-with-thee, an honest listen to socially conscious roots artists of the last few years is more likely to reveal despondency over our disconnections than scolding. If this is an emerging genre of radical empathy, this week’s String talks to the creators of two timely, important examples.

Steve Earle, one of Americana’s premiere activist songwriters, inhabits the voice of coal miners on his new Ghosts of West Virginia. In this case, his background as a progressive activist synchs up with the story of the communities devastated by the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine explosion of 2010 when 29 miners lost their lives. This may be the heart of so-called Trump Country, but here Earle and his subjects are equally outraged at corporate wrongdoing and allied in their hopes for more economic opportunity in rural Appalachia.

B.J. Barham, the songwriting force behind the Raleigh, NC band American Aquarium, says the protagonist of “Me + Mine (Lamentations)” from his new project, lives in coal country as well, on the border of Kentucky and West Virginia. The plight he describes parallels the story of his own hometown of Reidsville, NC, where one tobacco company shuttered when he was a kid, taking 70% of the town’s jobs with it. Barham says he got to compare notes with Earle last year as their respective projects were taking shape.  “We talked about the similarities between what we were currently writing,” he says. “We wanted to both talk about problems but do it in a way that doesn’t push anybody away. We wanted to get people talking.”

In our interview, Earle says “I was looking to write album that spoke for people who didn’t vote like I did.” About that time he was approached by playwrights he’d worked with in the past, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, who were developing the show Coal Country about the mine explosion and the trials that followed. The show was in full swing in New York when the virus shut it down, but not before Earle took a half dozen of those songs and added more to flesh out the album, which he’s framing as a call for political progress through de-escalation and empathy. “The game of putting this incredibly divided country back together isn’t checkers. It’s chess,” he says. “And this is me moving a pawn…But I think it’s a valid piece and I’m very proud of this work.”

Barham is more pointed and oppositional in the song “A Better South,” which directly condemns Confederate monuments and laments the ambiguity of being a southerner with the lines  “Every ounce of pride comes with a pound of guilt/There's a shadow here, looms long and black/It's always one step forward and two steps back.” About the song, he says, “We are not going to change the past but we can definitely control what happens in this generation and our next generations. It’s a call to arms for people to be proactive about the things they can change and the things they can’t.”

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org