‘The Appalachian Tommy’
Taking a break from the alt-country band The Surreal McCoys that he co-founded, Erik Huey has released his first solo album, ‘Appalachian Gothic’. Descended from four generations of West Virginia coalminers Huey digs deep into his family’s heritage. Through his songs he looks at tough times long ago and more recently. He speaks candidly to Americana UK’s Lyndon Bolton about the album, its inspiration and working with producer and co-writer Eric ‘Roscoe’ Ambel.
I first came across you playing in the alt-country band The Surreal McCoys. Both your website and the PR for the album mention your punk days so before getting into the album’s roots let’s hear about your own.
I founded The Surreal McCoys back in college at Notre Dame. Our idea of mixing Johnny Cash with punk and rock seemed to work from the get-go. At school I was in a band called The Cool Daddies then one called Phil And The Blanks. I’ve always been interested in music and songwriting. Garage meets punk meets twang kind of describes the first wave of what we now call americana, then called alt-country or cowpunk. I heard The Blasters and The Beat Farmers on college radio and loved them. I listened to Mojo Nixon’s ‘Outlaw Country’ show on Sirius XM. Growing up in West Virginia meant a love/hate relationship with country music. The alt side of things got me into americana. Adding in Dylan and Gram Parsons led to where I ended up in the McCoys. Essentially a live band, we’ve been around, the same five guys, ever since. We released our first record, ‘The Bottle & The Gun’ way back in 2008 and ‘The Howl & The Growl’ seven years later.
Another seven years on wasn’t it time for the next McCoy’s record?
Yes, we did want to pick up the pace a little bit but as we live in five different cities we don’t get the opportunity to play together as much as we’d like. So in the absence of the McCoys, geographically and personally, I thought it made sense to do a solo record. The journey of the punk rock kid whose first concert was The Ramones in Morgantown, West Virginia through Echo & The Bunnymen and The Clash into twang.
What were your country influences? You mentioned country was all around you but so far punk has dominated. Did you decide country wasn’t for you, your parents’ music perhaps?
No, I did listen to country back in high school but in West Virginia you tend to approach country music from a very specific place. You either embrace it or run away. I tried to run away because I was a rock and roller. My mom was into ‘70s soul music and 80’s pop, whatever was on the radio. We were decidedly anti-country. But when eventually the door to Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline is opened things change. In college I got into Dwight Yoakam. The holy triumvirate in the CD player was ‘Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc’ , REM and The Replacements. From that I went back towards George Jones. When I heard ‘He First Stopped Loving Her Today’ I thought, wow, there’s a lot in here. Country isn’t just about hicks, hillbillies and shitkickers. In many ways it was uncool to like country music back then in West Virginia. But as I discovered, it was authentic music with its own traditions. Johnny Cash was in many ways a punk, the way he approached his life, his causes and even lyrically. Punk is outsider’s music the way country is. Same chord progressions, just faster. I wanted to take the McCoys in a more country direction but this new solo record allowed me to go much further down that country road (as they say in West Virginia).
How else did you get into country?
You eventually realise it’s the soundtrack to your life, no matter how hard you try to deny it. It’s all around you, it’s what your relatives listen to. My uncle Jack was a truck driver, I went with him up to Ohio listening to the old stuff, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty. I went to see Loretta perform with Charlie Rich.
What was your inspiration behind the album?
Eric Ambel and I wrote ‘The Devil Is Here In These Hills’ and ‘Lucy’ back in 2016. We thought they could be the start of a soundtrack, perhaps to James Greene’s book of the same name about the West Virginia Coal Mine Wars. I kept writing and researching, Eric liked it so soon we had enough for an EP. I thought if we threw in a few Surreal McCoys songs we’d have enough for two EPs or possibly a full album. The McCoys liked what I was doing but it wasn’t their story, it wasn’t their life. My dad who was a coal miner, as was my grandfather and great grandfather, all in the Monongahela Valley. After seven songs Eric said this is a solo album, it’s not a side project and we’re not making up some new name. That allowed me to write songs in a much more personal way like ‘Dear Dad’. Around that time, at a studio in Brooklyn a friend said “why don’t you plumb your own rich history. I love ‘Bottle and a Gun’ but you’ve never got drunk and killed somebody so write about your own experience rather than those country cliches”. I think that song, ‘Dear Dad’ was profoundly important and gave me permission to go down this road. I couldn’t ask the band to perform some of these songs because they are so personal and autobiographical. Eric very much helped me get there, he pulled me like a therapist. Once I’d made that decision the writing got even more personal. I’ve spent most of my adult life not so much denying I’m from West Virginia but you know, if you’re coming out of college going for a job interview you tend not to lead with my dad was a coalminer and we grew up in a trailer on the banks of the Monongahela River. You sort of push that history back to make your own way but it never leaves you. That place of Appalachia is imprinted on me. I think it informs my world view in ways I never knew until I started this record.
Do you go back there often?
I always went back from time to time but a lot more over the past five years or so.
How has it changed ?
This is a region so right for its cultural moment. Places like Boston have had their cultural moment, like there was a time when it seemed every movie starred Ben Affleck somewhere in South Boston. When is Appalachia’s moment? Its musical history goes way back to the Carter Family whose antecedents go back to Scots and Irish immigrants. Their music became bluegrass that became country music. The birthplace of country music is in Bristol, Tennessee right on the West Virginia border where the ‘Big Bang Sessions’ were recorded.
From that musical history where does the union history come in?
Some of the most extreme and often violent instances of union struggles in American history happened in West Virginia. And it continues with further industrialisation, workers’ rights, fossil fuels and climate change. It’s all going on. There’s a massive opioid crisis. The region is the ultimate flyover country. It’s hard to get to. DC is a six hour drive away. It’s literally in the middle of nowhere.
What might have happened if you had stayed there?
I’d have gone down the mines. I thought that was my only option.
Was that your parents’ view also?
Yes and no. I’ve talked about this with friends whose fathers were miners. Some of those would have been proud to have sons as miners too but I don’t think any would have wanted their kids to do that. Our parents, grandparents and those before them became miners because they were trying to make a better life. They are proud of what they do, it’s an inherent pride. The only way a kid could go to college was on a scholarship, there was no money so it’s get a scholarship or go down the mines. My dad said get your act together, it’s serious work down there and you’re not serious but that’s where he thought I’d end up. But my mom encouraged me to set my sights on going to college. I did end up getting a scholarship and going to college out of state. That changed everything.
What did your family think of that?
They were excited in the way people get excited about breaking the cycle of poverty. There was a lot of pride. I don’t think anyone lamented me not going down the mines. My parents divorced when I was sixteen which kind of ended the coal mining chapter of my life. I never wanted to go back.
Was that unusual, did many of your generation become miners?
Not really because so many of the mining jobs had gone. Though we were certainly the first generation to go to college there were just as many who became construction workers or did manual labour.
What have you discovered about your family from making the record?
My great-grandfather, who I knew as he lived to be 96, was among those who brought the United Mineworkers Union of America to southwest Pennsylvania. He was so proud of that. I remember the union certificate hanging on the wall in his home. The only other picture he had was of Jesus. That kinda summed him up, the Union and God. His predecessors came over from Ireland during the Famine. Others had been miners in Wales and the north of England before emigrating to America. Some of those Irish miners fought the union cause in times of great violence. Two of my grandfather’s brothers died in mining accidents, tragedies that are rarely mentioned in the family. It was tough work. I like to think that my great-grandfather would have met the famous union activist, Mother Jones.
Were those previous generations musical? Did they bring across any old-world musical traditions?
I don’t remember any specifically being musicians in the playing fiddle on the porch sense, but they were all musical people. My parents and grandparents loved to dance and there was always music on. My most joyful memories of growing up were around music.
How did you start working with Eric Ambel?
Eric’s a geek on guitars and amplifiers who years ago got to know Tim Smith of the McCoys in an online group where all they talked about was DR2 amplifiers. Eric had produced the Bottle Rockets ‘The Brooklyn Side’ album, one of my favourite albums of all time and Tim’s favourite. Tim called me to say he’d been talking to Eric about producing our next album and told me to get on it. I met Eric and over steak and red wine we talked about the music we both liked and he said, yeah, I’d like to work with you guys.
What’s he like to work with?
He’s a musical genius with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the rock and roll canon, especially this type. He can help you elicit sounds from your head and get them onto a record. He’s incredibly patient, re-ordering, re-arranging. Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets says, “your song is never done until Eric Ambel re-arranges it and given it what it needs.”
What’s a good example of the Ambel touch from ‘Appalachian Gothic’?
‘The Devil Is Here In These Hills’ has a simple chorus. When he heard it, Eric, a man of few words, said, “yeah, but what you wrote isn’t a chorus. It doesn’t sing right. It’s gotta sing good. Think AC/DC, four syllable in a line, think what Bon Scott would write! Here’s the chorus, do it like this”. I replied that I had a lot more to say to which his response was, “too many words. Think how you would sing it live, you’re not reciting Shakespeare, you’ve gotta be able to do this live. More is less.” After a while we talk in musical shorthand, a “Chuck lick” here or “Copperhead Road vibe” there or “Johnny Cash San Quentin”.
That’s Eric’s contribution lyrically, how about musically?
Well, there was the banjo conversation.
The banjo conversation?
Yes, if you’re from West Virginia you have a complicated relationship with the banjo so I said, that we need this to sound like it’s from Appalachia so banjo or mandolin? Eric replied, “no banjo, too much ‘Deliverance’ connotation”. It’s true that you only have to mention you’re from West Virginia and people start humming “Duelling Banjos” from the movie. So Eric says he’s got just the thing, it’s called a dulcitar, a cross between a dulcimer and a guitar, which he’s played on albums by Ryan Adams and The Bottle Rockets. He plays it on ‘The Bride of Appalachia’ and geographically he instantly puts the listener in place. It’s just a little more organic and authentic.
If those are good examples of your Appalachian songs which most reflect your punk background?
‘Lucy’. Eric and I were watching the Tour de France on TV, that’s what he does in summer, then from the Ambel riff vault he just said what do you think of this? It sounds like Iggy and The Stooges and we had no idea where it would fit into the album.
Is that why you did a cover of John Cooper Clarke’s ‘A Heart Disease Called Love’?
I’ve always liked JCC, lyrically it’s a country song if I ever heard one. Eric thought we should put some sax on it so he just picked up the phone and called Steve Berlin of Los Lobos who liked the idea.
Are there any other genres and inspirations?
‘Death County’ is Robert Johnson and William Faulkner southern gothic. Hearing about my Appalachian project a friend said I’d have to include a murder ballad, the Louvins would. This isn’t just a murder ballad but a mass-murder ballad. ’Yours In The Struggle’ is Woody Guthrie and Peter Seeger. We thought the album was getting quite bleak and West Virginian people are basically happy people so there are some upbeat fun songs. George Jones and Tammy Wynette inspired ‘That’s What Jukeboxes Are For’ where I duet with Laura Cantrell. Eric said we should speed up the original version to sound more Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. ‘You Can’t Drink All Day’ is back to George Jones and ‘Winona’ adds a pop element.
Would you describe ‘Appalachian Gothic’ as a concept album?
I didn’t intend it to be a concept album but it turned out that way. It’s my hillbilly rock opera, the Tommy of Appalachia.
How did you get Laura Cantrell and Steve Berlin?
That’s purely down to Eric. He has an incredible Rolodex, he just knows who’s right for the part. Laura and Steve love Eric and because of him they were willing to take a chance on me.
And not to mention those who played on most of the record?
Of course not, I’m so grateful to Jeremy Chatzky on bass and Kenny Soule on drums.
Eric talked about playing live, have you plans to tour the record?
I’d love to. The official launch is with Eric at the Pearl Street Warehouse in DC on February 10th. I’ve got some dates with a Baltimore band called Starbelly, lots of jangly guitars, where we’ll perform most of the album. But I’ll still need someone to sing the duets with. Perhaps I’ll be like the old country singers who found someone to duet with in each town?
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
Number one is Tyler Childers. Like his fellow Kentuckian (one one-time producer) Sturgill Simpson, he just keeps pushing the limits of what roots country Americans can achieve. Listen to ‘Long Violent History’. Number two is John R. Miller, my fellow West Virginian. His writing is so visceral and gripping. Number three is an album I discovered in researching my new record: Pete Seeger & the Almanac Singers ‘Talking Union’. I played this until it was appended onto my DNA. A friend in Massachusetts found the vinyl version at a garage sale and sent it to me… without knowing I’d been OD’ing on the digital version for the 6 solid months. True serendipity!
Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to our readers?
To the readers of Americana UK, I’d like to say thank you. I saw Johnny Cash in Kilburn National Club when I lived in London in the 90s and I was blown away by the love for this type of music. Your support is a true bridge across the Atlantic divide. You’re really just, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “bringing it all back home,” since the roots of this music go back to Scotland, Ireland and English folk ballads. Can’t wait for a future Appalachia in the U.K. tour!
Erik Vincent Huey’s ‘Appalachian Gothic’ is out now on The Orchard/CEN/Appalachian AF
Be the first to comment