Those who believe Steve Earle to be finest living singer-songwriter in Americana music will have little hesitation in asserting that his latest album Ghosts of West Virginia only further serves to support such claims.
While Earle has spent much of his long career lamenting in song the trials and tribulations of salt-of-the-earth America, none of his albums are as thematically driven as Ghosts of West Virginia.
The album was written in conjunction with the off-Broadway play Coal Country which honors the 29 miners killed in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in Montcoal, West Virginia, ten years ago. It was one of America’s worst mining disasters and an investigation led to a $200million settlement with the U.S. Justice Department.
The play’s writers Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen approached Earle with the research they had done into the disaster, including interviews with survivors and the families of the dead miners. From this, Earle, who also spent some time researching in West Virginia, composed seven songs which turned the production into a musical. He added another three for the stand-alone album.
In a press statement that accompanies the album, Earle said: “One of the dangers that we’re in is if people like me keep thinking that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist or an asshole, then we’re fucked, because it’s simply not true. So this is one move toward something that might take a generation to change. I wanted to do something where that dialogue could begin. I said I wanted to speak to people that didn’t necessarily vote the way that I did, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have anything in common. We need to learn how to communicate with each other. My involvement in this project is my little contribution to that effort. And the way to do that — and to do it impeccably — is simply to honor those guys who died at Upper Big Branch.”
Teaming up once again with The Dukes, Earle delivers 10 trademark tracks representing all those musical genres - Appalachian-folk, ,country-rock, bluegrass, gospel - he has traversed for more than 40 years and certainly categorizes him as an Americana artist.
The lyrical narration is pure Earle, and at times gets close to such classic lines as I volunteered for the army on my birthday/They draft the white trash first around here anyway (“Copperhead Road”) or I killed a boy the other night who never even shaved / I don't even know what I'm fightin' for, I ain't never owned a slave (“Ben McCulloch”)
Ghosts of West Virginia begins with a gospel a cappella – “Heaven Ain’t Going Nowhere” – but soon cuts to the chase with the bluegrass “Union, God and Country: My daddy was a miner/My daddy’s daddy too/Union god and country was all they ever knew.
The musical mood is at times dark and gritty, especially "Black Lung" - Black lung never gets better/Every breath a little bit harder to draw - but it has its lighter moments, as in "John Henry Was a Steel Drivin' Man," a clever, modernized version of the old "John Henry" folk standard.
There is some respite from Earle's raw, earthy vocals when The Duke's fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore takes lead vocals in the beautiful weepy "If I Could See Your Face Again," a first-person song from the viewpoint of the wife of a dead miner: If I could see your face again/Black with coal until you grin.
Earle's emotions explode in "It's About Blood" - It's about fathers/It's about sons/It's about lovers waking up in the middle of the night alone. And the song provides the expected theatrical adornment with a roll call of the 29 names of the dead miners.
But the best is left to last. The album's closing track "The Mine" is Earle at his stunning-ballad best. It tells the story of an unemployed West Virginian forced to pawn his wedding ring for drugs. But there is hope that his brother may get him some work at the mine - Come on Sunday morning, phone is gonna ring/Be me brother down at the mine/He's gonna tell me come running, 'cos he had to pull some strings/I promised not to blow it this time. In the end though - job or no job - he knows there is no leaving West Virginia - When you live here all ya life/You get the mountains in ya/Ain't no way you're getting 'em out.
Early reviews of Ghosts of West Virginia were glowing.
None said it better than Chuck Armstrong in No Depression:
"By the end of the album, Earle has invited listeners into the experience of the explosion and its aftermath, but perhaps most powerfully, he's created a world that is inhabited not just by those directly affected by the horrific event, but by all who have ears to hear. It's a shared experience that crosses state lines, destroys privilege, and transcends time, and it will live on as one of Earle's finest pieces of work of his career."
Once again, Earle has made a stunning contribution not only to Americana music, but America full stop.
Editor Crossroads - Americana Music Appreciation