Erik Vincent Huey Mines His Past On ‘Appalachian Gothic’
One reason that we leave home and move away is that it’s one of the best ways to understand where we’re from. There’s nothing like some distance to gain perspective. Even so, it’s a little bit wild that Erik Huey would find the source of a mid-life epiphany about his West Virginia roots at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.
“I saw this book called The Devil Is Here In These Hills, and I devoured it,” he told me on a recent swing through Nashville. “It's all about the West Virginia mine wars of 100 years ago, and the unionization. It's super violent, and Mother Jones unionized 100,000 workers. And I can assure you they didn't teach this history in my West Virginia history class in eighth grade. I mean, it's been buried for a reason, by the coal companies and other interests.”
Huey grew up in Uniontown, PA and then Morgantown, WV, the heart of coal and steel country along the Monongahela River. His father and grandfather were miners, living the life described in songs like “Dark As A Dungeon” where “the dangers are double and the pleasures are few.” Huey, who left the area for college and never settled back, is now a Washington DC based musician and government affairs professional. He hadn’t thought much about the nature of where he was from, he says, but he was so taken by the Appalachian union story and its telling that he reached the estate of the book’s late author James Green and optioned the rights for a TV series based on the work.
At the same time, Huey started shaping the events from that history into songs, possibly as a soundtrack for the production (which is still in development). But that musical effort took on a life of its own. With production help from New York-based roots rock standout Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, Huey made Appalachian Gothic, one of this year’s sleeper indie Americana success stories. With echoes of Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” and Tyler Childers’s “Long Violent History,” Huey’s album blends scenes from Appalachian lives and communities with worker solidarity anthems, set to a satisfying variety of country textures.
What it’s not is another album from Huey’s lifetime band the Surreal McCoys. They were formed during his years at Notre Dame in South Bend, IN and continued on in spurts of togetherness and touring for parts of the past twenty years. Inspired by the incendiary twang of Jason and the Scorchers and the Del Lords of the 1990s, they forged what’s been called a “Johnny Clash” hybrid that plays well in bars with power, passion and humor. Huey says the band recognized that his new song cycle was deeply personal and grounded in a sense of place they couldn’t simulate. So he stepped out as a solo artist for the first time in his 50s, touring with his new friends Starbelly, a power pop band out of Baltimore as his opening act and backing band.
“It was a reluctant freedom, because I've learned that I'm very collaborative in nature,” Huey says, telling me that he consulted with friends and colleagues about the challenges of writing songs from his own experiences, without the irony or pose that often carries songs by his longtime band. He tackled vulnerable subjects like his fraught relationship with his father and the addiction in rural America. Then he had to execute the album and put the material out there, come what may. “I didn’t know if anybody was gonna relate to a hillbilly rock opera about coal mining and unions and opioid abuse and alcoholism and honky tonks and dancing and whiskey, but people really are. The reception has been really wonderful and a little surprising.”
In our conversation, we cover the origins of the Surreal McCoys, working with Ambel, an underground roots rock icon, the politics of coal country now, and what it means to cover a subject “in exile.”
“Being able to look at (home) a little more objectively, with the passage of time, you know, it allows you to be more sympathetic, and empathetic,” Huey says. “Because those are my relatives. These are my friends from high school. And they used to have a proud blue-collar life. They worked in the mines or in one of the adjacent industries, and now they're working at Walmart, you know? And what does that do to your mindset?”