EP’s are second-class projects. They are largely ignored by the media and by fans, and why release one when you could just wait until you have enough songs and money to release a full-length album? All arguments that have been leveled, and fairly, at EP’s over the years, especially lately when the format is on the rise, and the convention seems to be to release a four-song EP, only to have those same songs be part of a full album released a few months later.
But EP’s have their place in music, and sometimes the format can even work better than a full-length record. Occasionally, they can tell a cohesive, gripping story in a few songs that might run together into a pretty boring 10-track affair. Justin Payne (also known some as Justin Dean Payne) and his 6-track, 24-minute love letter to the coal region of West Virginia give us a perfect example of what a great EP means.
A coal miner from Boone County, West Virginia, Justin Payne pours out the love for his homeland and the empathy for the people of the region all over this record. It’s a journey from childhood memories in the opener, “Growin’ Old,” with its details of secondhand clothes and picking up cans, to the haunting “Miner’s Soul,” laden with steel guitar and told from the point of view of a miner now at peace in heaven trying to communicate that message to his family. WE get a painful sense of the toll that mining life takes on families in “Piece of my Life” and “make a Little Time,” but the former also rejects the idea of leaving West Virginia for Nashville because it isn’t home. Payne sings, “that town don’t understand me, no, they don’t like my kind. They don’t care about the truth down there, and they don’t deserve a piece of my life.” It seems that despite all the hardships that come with life in this region, leaving is not an option; the whole thing can be summed up in the line “my heart and love, they lie tucked down between two hills” in the song “Holler Home.”
The production here is simple and sparse but still quite varied. The opener is a little more upbeat, and the closer, “The Mines,” serves as a lighthearted break from the rest of the album with its hand-clapping and catchy melodies. IN fact, I’d have probably switched the places of this one and “Miner’s Soul,” so there would be a breath of fresh air in the middle of the record, and so the album could have gone from childhood to death and also ended with the best song. As mentioned before, “Miner’s Soul” has some incredible steel guitar, and “Holler Home” features some lovely fiddle play. It all keeps Justin Payne and his stories in the forefront as it should, but there’s enough variety in the instrumentation and production to keep it interesting. This is another thing that wouldn’t work as well on a whole album because it would tend to get boring, but as it is, it serves to add another element of cohesiveness and consistency so often hard to achieve on such short projects.
The highest point of this record, though, is something you get just by listening. It’s something indefinable that comes out in the obvious love Justin Payne has for this place and these people. It’s the emotion he breathes into these songs and the way the mine references come from experience. Authenticity does not have to be present to make good music, and you don’t have to be from West Virginia to sing about these things or to appreciate it, but there’s also something irreplaceable about an actual coal miner telling these stories. It’s not because you believe him more, it’s because he believes it, and that comes out in the depth of feeling he puts into his songs. If I heard this entire EP sung by someone else, it wouldn’t be nearly as good–not because that person wasn’t a West Virginian or a coal miner, but because that person could not put the kind of raw pain into these songs that Justin Payne pours into them naturally. And again, this would not be as effective on a longer project; as it is, with 6 songs, you come away from it with a deeper understanding and respect for these people and blown away by Justin’s ability to lay all this out so perfectly and also so concisely.
Don’t overlook this because it’s short. It’s a simple, understated project, but it perfectly captures West Virginia and the coal mining region and immortalizes them in a way that is timeless.
Note: All proceeds from the sale of Coal Camp will go to help local food banks and charities in Justin Payne’s community.