Erik Vincent Huey Brings Coal Dust To Appalachian Gothic
Audiences will be familiar with Erik Vincent Huey’s work as frontman of The Surreal McCoys as Cletus McCoy, but may also know that he is a Washington DC-based lawyer and part of an advocacy group working on policy issues like privacy, cybersecurity, and digital distribution. They may even be familiar with Huey’s family background as part of a long line of West Virginia coal miners. But they’ll see Huey in a very different light by hearing about his background in a direct way once they encounter his debut solo album, Appalachian Gothic, arriving on Jaunary 20th, 2023.
It’s an album that Huey worked on with producer and guitarist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and it was recorded at his Cowboy Technical Services in Brooklyn. As the two were developing music for a potential drama series about the coal mining wars of West Virginia, resulting in key album track “The Devil’s Here In These Hills,” Huey realized much of his personal perspective as an Appalachian native would be involved, which made it a logical choice for a debut solo release. I spoke with Erik Vincent Huey about the emotional dimensions of this project, which took him back to his roots in a profound way, and the hard-won process of maintaining as much authenticity as possible in the music that needed to convey both the joyful and dark realities of past and present day West Virginian Appalachia.
Americana Highways: I can see why you might choose to do a solo project for a subject as serious as this album conveys and for one so close to your heart. The first thing that happened was that you worked with Eric Ambel on the song “The Devil’s Here In These Hills,” right?
Erik Vincent Huey: Yes. Well, The Surreal McCoys are not “un-serious,” but there is an un-serious component. We use fake names like The Ramones. We dress like cowboys. Our shows used to be much campier with velvet Elvis paintings and jelly donuts. I think there was a joviality and frivolity to being a live band. We were very serious about making music, but some of that attitude continued on the records. There were a number of reasons to make this a solo album. First of all, the guys live in five different cities, and none of them grew up in Appalachia the way that I did.
My great grandfather, great, great grandfather, and even great, great, great grandfathers were coal miners in the Monongahela Valley of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. I read a book, which I optioned, and am still attempting to turn into a feature or dramatic TV series, called The Devil Is Here in These Hills. It’s about the West Virginia mine wars. I knew a little bit about that history, but it was definitely not in my history class. I knew stories from my grandfather, but not that much. So Eric Ambel and I started by writing some songs for what we hoped would be a TV series, and still might be. We’re in discussions with a number of people.
AH: So in working on this, it seems like the music side grew beyond what you original anticipated.
EVH: Yes, it did. In the meantime, we wondered if this might be an EP, then it became an album, and it had so much of my autobiographical voice in there, and it grew from a discussion of what was going on a hundred years ago in these towns to a discussion of what’s happening there now. It’s the same conversation, ranging from the treatment of workers to the opiod crisis. These are forgotten people who politicians rarely talk about. It’s also a cultural area that’s ripe for its moment. When is Appalachia’s moment? Its presence in the American consciousness is undersized and it doesn’t get recognition. I want to shed some light on it.
AH: I understand that you’ve lived in Washington, D.C. for a number of years. Was having been away helpful with perspective or was that something to overcome?
EVH: I had stepped away, and lived somewhere else, so that I think that gave me the ability to do things that I might not have otherwise been able to do. It’s a serious record because it deals with serious things like treatment of workers, unionization, opioid addiction, alcoholism, your relationship with your father and dads of that generation who were blue-collar. It was kind of like a therapy session for me, and before we knew it, we had 13 songs.
I was most afraid to share it with my friends from West Virginia because their bullshit detector is very well-attuned and they are very mindful of how West Virginia is portrayed in popular culture. People who don’t live there anymore are also seen differently than those who stayed, and there is some resentment, to a degree. I have a spoken word song called “The Bride of Appalachia” and, almost to a person among my friends from West Virginia, that’s their favorite song. It’s the darkest song on the record! Maybe the second darkest, since “Death County” is really dark.
AH: Those are both really dark, evocative songs!
EVH: Regarding “Death County,” someone said to me that you can’t have an album called Appalachian Gothic and not have a murder ballad on it, but that’s a mass-murder ballad. But they said those songs really got it right. I was very excited about that. I feel like I really don’t know if people outside the Appalachian spine states will really be able to relate to the album, but there are a lot of universal things in there, and West Virginia really was the American story. One of the lines I use in the closing song on the record, “Coal Miner’s Son,” is “This was the engine room of the industrial age.”
You had Scotch-Irish workers, Italians, African Americans, and some of those coal towns were 30 to 40% black. There’s a proud tradition of integration, workers banding together, labor strikes and strife. There was a time and place when it was the stuff of our American songbook. I felt like there should be more focus here, but I didn’t want to go into Billy Joel territory, or even Springsteen territory with Nebraska, so I said to Eric that I had some upbeat songs that I felt we ought to make it more like The River than Nebraska. The River is quintessentially Appalachian but you have that balance. We are a joyful people. It’s not all Dickensian post-industrial strife. There is joyful music, like if you go back to the Carter family. This goes back to your question of being serious, but that is why we released “The Devil’s Here In These Hills” first, because it has a labor component.
AH: What was it like writing that song? It has so much historical detail packed into it.
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 my research and it started to infuse itself into everything. A lot of those songs are fun, not just down-beat. Sometimes we combine the serious stuff and the fun stuff in the same song, like “Winona,” where the lyrics don’t necessarily match the upbeat, power-pop melody.
AH: It’s obvious that a lot of thought and work has gone into this album. Starting with “The Devil’s Here In These Hills,” I think the level of detail in the lyrics is what accomplishes that. I’m from Western North Carolina and I felt I could recognize the feeling of the places you talk about, despite regional differences. Was that tied to a feeling of accountability for you?
EVH: Oh, yes. Because otherwise I’d just get roasted! It had to be real and feel real. I wanted it to have that specificity. There’s a line in the song “Appalachian Blues” that says, “A Creeker kid O.D.ed and he’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. The Creekers live closer to the base of the hills, since there’s a socio-economic gradation as you go up the side of the mountain. There was a point where that line allowed me to get more specific.
You can actually feel more universal and get to a place that reveals a more universal truth through specificity. I made a reference to the Alleghany Mountains, which is the Western ridge of the Appalachians, saying, “The wind blows through the 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 enabled me to talk about these things.
AH: How is it, for you, emotionally digging into these things after time away from your roots?
EVH: Frankly, I worked hard to not make these things my reality. Then you have a feeling of guilt. It’s not exactly survivor’s guilt, but you say to yourself, “I got out, but who the hell do I think I am? When did I get so uppity?” You do realize the pull of it. I had spent a lot of time in my life trying not to think about growing up in a trailer on the banks of the Monongahela River with an abusive, coal miner father. I spent years, maybe decades not thinking about it, but this project taught me that geography is something that you do never really escape.
The last words of the album are “I spent my life tunneling out, but no matter how far I roam, these rugged brown hills keep calling me home.” So much of you is genetically encoded, if not geographically encoded. It’s a very American thing to go somewhere else and create a new version of you, ask Bob Dylan! But this has been an amazing project to help me get in touch with who I am and kind of unite the present me with the childhood me. It’s very much an album written in exile, and I’ve been self-imposed exile for a long time.
AH: Are you looking forward to playing these songs live for audiences?
EVH: I do have some concerns for playing this album live. Is this going to be a bummer? We’re going to do some covers and fun stuff on the back-end, maybe one or two McCoys songs and a whole lot of Folsom. But how do we translate this live? We have a big show coming up in DC in February for the album release, so how do we translate to that audience? That audience will be diverse and geographically diverse since few people in DC are really from here. But I think it all comes back to authenticity. This is the place that I’m from and I still go there, and these are some of the people who inhabit this place. And that would be me, this is me in so many ways. Imagining what my life would be like if I were still there is reflected in a lot of the songs, and you realize that’s kind of who you are, nevertheless.
AH: I think people have a sense of coal mining and the idea of coal mining communities, partly through the history of organization, through union history, and things that appear on TV about it. One of the main things that brings it across, too, is the music itself. The sound of “The Devil’s Here In These Hills,” with the rolling of the bass and drums, and the electric guitar bridge that feels very modern, conveys a lot of emotion and energy. That can reach people.
EVH: I appreciate that. I certainly hope you’re right. That’s the benefit of having a genius like Eric Ambel as a collaborator on this. He and I wrote about half the songs on the record 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 the gateway opened for the rest of the album.
We also had to have the banjo conversation. The challenge was, if we took that out of the equation, we had to work harder to convey the regionalism. Otherwise, it was too easy in some senses. We were conscious of not using the banjo. We used pedal steel sparingly, so when it hit, it hit in the right way. We wanted to sound like George Jones on “Drink All Day.” We wanted to have a rollicking roadhouse piano on “That’s What Juke Boxes Are For.” We were very judicious and didn’t want to cheat a little bit. We didn’t want to say, “Add water, and instant Appalachia!” We wanted to get into the grit. I wanted there to be coal dust on our fingertips at the end of this because that’s what the songs and the subject matter required.
Thanks for chatting with us Erik! You can find more information and links to his music here: https://www.erikvincenthuey.com/
Enjoy our earlier coverage here: Video Premiere: Erik Huey “Winona”