Erik Vincent Huey brings coal dust toAppalachian Gothic
Audiences will be familiar with Erik Vincent Huey's work as the leader of The Surreal McCoys as Cletus McCoy, but may also know that he is an attorney based in Washington DC and part of an advocacy group working on political issues such as privacy, security cybernetics and digital distribution. . You may even be familiar with Huey's family history as part of a long line of West Virginia coal miners. But they will see Huey in a very different light when hearing about his past in a direct way when they find his first solo album,Appalachian Gothic, arriving on January 20, 2023.
It's an album that Huey worked on with the producer and guitarist.Eric "Roscoe" Ambeland was recorded at his Cowboy Technical Services in Brooklyn. As the two developed music for a potential drama series about the West Virginia coal mining wars, resulting in the album's key song "The Devil's Here In These Hills", Huey realized that much of his personal perspective as a an Appalachian native would be involved, making him a logical choice for a debut solo release. I spoke with Erik Vincent Huey about the emotional dimensions of this project, taking it deep to its roots, and the arduous process of maintaining as much authenticity as possible in the music that needed to convey joy and joy. Grim Realities of West Virginia's Appalachian Past and Present.
Americana Highways: I understand why you would choose to do a solo project for a subject as serious as this album conveys and for someone so close to your heart. The first thing that happened was you worked with Eric Ambel on the song "The Devil's Here In These Hills", right?
Erik Vincent Huey: Yes. Well, The Surreal McCoys aren't "unserious", but there is a non-serious component. We use fake names like The Ramones. We dress like cowboys. Our shows used to be a lot more country with velvet Elvis paintings and jelly donuts. I think there was joviality and frivolity in being a live band. We're very serious about making music, but some of that attitude has carried over to the records. There were a number of reasons for making this a solo album. First of all, the guys live in five different cities and none of them grew up in Appalachia like I did.
My great-grandfather, great-grandfather, and even great-great-grandfathers, great-grandfathers were coal miners in the Monongahela Valley of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. I read a book, which I got as an option, and I'm still trying to turn it into a TV drama calledThe devil is here in these hills. It's about the West Virginia mining wars. I knew a little bit about this history, but it definitely wasn't in my history class. I knew stories about my grandfather, but not that much. So Eric Ambel and I started writing some songs for what we hoped would be a TV series, and still could be. We are talking to several people.
AH: So working on it, it seems like the musical side has grown beyond what you originally expected.
EVH: Yes, it was. In the meantime, we wondered if this could be an EP, so it became an album, and it had a lot of my autobiographical voice in there, and it grew from a discussion of what was happening a hundred years ago in these cities to a discussion of what is happening. there now. It's the same conversation, from the treatment of workers to the opioid crisis. They are forgotten people that politicians rarely talk about. It is also a cultural area that is ripe for its time. When is Appalachian time? Its presence in the American consciousness is underappreciated and unrecognized. I want to shed some light on this.
AH: I understand you lived in Washington, D.C. for many years. Has being away helped with perspective or was it something to get over?
EVH: I moved and lived somewhere else, so I think that gave me the ability to do things that I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise. It's a serious record because it deals with serious things like the treatment of workers, unionization, opioid addiction, alcoholism, his relationship with his father, and the parents of that generation who were blue-collar workers. It was like a therapy session of sorts for me, and before we knew it, we were down to 13 songs.
I was more scared to share with my West Virginia friends because their shit detector is very well tuned and they are well aware of how West Virginia is portrayed in popular culture. People who no longer live there are also viewed differently than those who have, and there is some resentment, to some extent. I have a spoken word song called "Appalachian Sweetheart" and for almost one person among my West Virginia friends, that's their favorite song. It's the darkest song on the record! Perhaps the second darkest, as "Death County" is really dark.
AH: Both are really dark and evocative songs!
EVH: Regarding "Death County", someone told me that you can't have an album called Appalachian Gothic and not have a murder ballad, but this is a mass murder ballad. But they said these songs really did well. I was really excited about it. I feel like I really don't know if people outside of the Appalachian states will really be able to relate to the album, but there's a lot of universal things about it, and West Virginia really was American history. One of the lines I use in the record's closing song, "Coal Miner's Son," is "This was the engine room of the industrial age."
You had Scots-Irish, Italian, African-American workers, and some of these coal towns were 30 to 40 percent black. There is a proud tradition of integration, union of workers, strikes and labor conflicts. There was a time and a place when it was part of our American songbook. I felt like there should be more focus here, but I didn't want to get into Billy Joel territory, or even Springsteen territory with Nebraska, so I told Eric he had some upbeat songs that I thought we should do more like The River than Nebraska. The river is essentially Appalachian, but you have that balance. We are a happy people. It's not all Dickensian post-industrial struggles. There's upbeat music, like you're back in the Carter family. This goes back to your serious question, but that's why we released "The Devil's Here In These Hills" first, because it has a work component.
AH: What was it like to write this song? It has so many historical details packed in.
EVH: I must have listened to every Pete Seeger song, every Woodie Guthrie song, and every union song for that one, which was a joy. I was doing research and it started to infuse everything. A lot of these songs are funny, not just depressing. Sometimes we mix serious and fun things in the same song, like “Winona”, where the lyrics don't necessarily match the upbeat melody and powerful pop.
AH: It's obvious that a lot of thought and work went into this album. Starting with "The Devil's Here In These Hills", I think the level of detail in the lyrics is what makes it. I'm from western North Carolina and felt like I could recognize the feeling of the places you talk about despite the regional differences. Was this linked to a feeling of responsibility for you?
EVH: Oh, yes. Because otherwise they would roast me! It had to be real and look real. I wanted it to have that specificity. There's a line in the song "Appalachian Blues" that goes, "A Creeker kid OD'd and it's the third one since last summer." The preacher says, 'Just another victim of the Appalachian Blues.'" The term “Creeker” is a very specific term. There was a point where that line allowed me to be more specific.
In fact, you can feel more universal and come to a place that reveals a more universal truth through specificity. I made a reference to the Alleghany Mountains, which is the western range of the Appalachians, and I said, "The wind is blowing in Alleghany, but it's not the winds of change." I mention other landmarks, like the Monongahela River, which runs through my life. Having that specificity allowed me to talk about these things.
AH: What is it like for you to delve into these things emotionally after being away from your roots for a while?
EVH: Frankly, I worked hard not to make those things my reality. Then you have a feeling of guilt. It's not exactly survivor's fault, but you say to yourself, “I left, but who the hell do I think I am? When did I get so vain? You sense the attraction. I spent a lot of my life trying not to think about growing up in a trailer on the Monongahela River with an abusive father, a coal miner. I spent years, maybe decades, not thinking about it, but this project taught me that geography is something you never escape.
The album's last words are "I've spent my life digging tunnels, but no matter how far I wander, these rugged brown hills still call me home." Much of you is genetically encoded, if not geocoded. It's a very American thing to go somewhere else and create a new version of yourself, just ask Bob Dylan! But this has been an amazing project to help me get in touch with who I am and unite my current self with my childhood self. It's basically an album written in exile, and I was a self-imposed exile for a long time.
AH: Do you have a desire to play these songs live in front of an audience?
EVH: I have some concerns about playing this album live. Is this going to be a drag? We'll do some covers and fun stuff at the end, maybe a McCoys song or two and a lot of Folsom. But how do we translate this live? We have a big show in DC in February for the album release, so how are we going to translate it to that audience? That audience will be diverse and geographically diverse, as not many people in DC are actually from here. But I guess it all comes down to authenticity. This is where I'm from and still go there, and these are some of the people who inhabit this place. And that would be me, that is me in many ways. Imagining what my life would be like if I were still there is reflected in many of the songs and yet you realize who you are.
AH: I think people understand coal mining and the idea of coal mining communities partly from the history of the organization, the history of the union and the things that are on television at the time. One of the main things that transmits it is also the music itself. The sound of “The Devil’s Here In These Hills”, with the sound of bass and drums, and the electric guitar bridge that passes a very modern air, conveys a lot of emotion and energy. That can reach people.
EVH: Thank you. I certainly hope you're right. That's the advantage of having a genius like Eric Ambel as a collaborator on this. He and I wrote half the songs on the album together, and I wrote the rest, but he played on everything. With "Devil's Here", the first sound was his dulcitar, which is a very peculiar instrument, but that same instrument has been on so many records. That was the moment when the front door opened for the rest of the album.
We also had to talk about banjo. The challenge was that if we took it out of the equation, we would have to work harder to convey regionalism. Otherwise it was too easy in some ways. We were conscious of not using the banjo. We use pedal steel sparingly, so when it hits, it hits right. We wanted to sound like George Jones in "Drink All Day". We wanted to have fun road piano on "That's What Jukeboxes Are For." We were very judicious and didn't want to cheat in the slightest. We didn't mean, "Add water and Instant Appalachia!" We wanted to enter the arena. I wanted there to be coal dust at your fingertips at the end, because that's what the songs and theme demanded.
Thanks for talking to us Erik! You can find more information and links to his music here:https://www.erikvincenthuey.com/
Enjoy our previous coverage here:Video Debut: Erik Huey “Winona”