I almost passed on this one. To tell you the truth, I really stopped listening to Steve Earle after Washington Square Serenade (2007). It wasn’t that I was necessarily against that album’s hybrid of electronica, hip hop, and world music, I just didn’t get it. Steve moved to Greenwich Village and decided to be a contemporary folk singer, and it kinda broke my heart. Goodbye “Guitar Town”? Goodbye, Earle.
For some, Steve Earle’s politics have been a point of division– and you can see that first hand at his live shows (I still go see him perform when he’s in town). He’s been a strong advocate against the death penalty and for prisoner’s rights, a champion of Native American rights, always aware of the problems facing our veterans and active service men and women, critical of politicians, and he’s used his position as a songwriter to explore those subjects– sometimes to his professional detriment. I admired him for that. I always knew (or thought I knew) where he was coming from, and even if our ideologies didn’t line up perfectly, I respected the hell out of his. I’d buy anything he put out– books and music– and defend it. I just couldn’t do that anymore after Washington Square Serenade.
So when I heard he’d written a concept album about West Virginia coal miners, I figured I knew what to expect. Well, I was right… And wrong.
Ghosts of West Virginia started as the accompanying soundtrack to a play called Coal Country. Based on the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, WV, Steve & The Dukes continue past the stage production to fill out a solid 10-song narrative that honors the lives of 29 lost miners and the Mountain State.
“Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” opens the album with a call and response certainly more suited to the theatre than the mine. It’s a dramatic invocation, a Greek Chorus to set the mood– but what it really did for me was showcase how good the production was about to be. Recorded by Ray Kennedy at Electric Lady Studios, I felt like I was surrounded. Kennedy is simply the best engineer. Period. Steve’s growl has only slightly evolved but it’s still compelling, full of years, heartache, and resolve and for the first time in over a decade, I wanted to pick up what he was puttin’ down.
“Union, God and Country”, “John Henry Was A Steel Drivin’ Man”, and “Black Lung” are 21st Century echoes of The Mountain (Steve’s 1999 single mic masterpiece recorded with the Del McCoury Band) while the James McMurtry-esque “It’s About Blood” has the angst of Hard Way-era Earle, and it’s especially emotional (“Goddamn right I’m emotional!”) as he calls out the names of 29 dead miners.
GOWV features two ballads, “Time Is Never On Our Side” and “If I Could See Your Face Again”, with the latter coming straight from Coal Country and featuring longtime Dukes fiddler/all-arounder (and one half of The Mastersons) Eleanor Whitmore on lead vocal.
I could do without “Devil Put The Coal In The Ground”– I can’t stand that disco banjo backbeat that’s awfully popular for some reason– but Steve still hillbilly’s pretty good with “Fastest Man Alive”, a George Jones-flavored ode to ace test-pilot, sound breaker, and West Virginia native Chuck Yeager that’s still got my foot tappin’.
“The Mine”, a third and final ballad, puts the whole thing in perspective but not to rest. Coal is not the future, but for so many, it’s a means to an end– food on the table, roof overhead, clothes, a chance (however slim and fading) at the fabled American Dream– that manages to destroy while creating a false sense of hope. The industry itself has been killing people for generations– and yet, as long as there’s a mine, there will be men and women willing to go down into the ground.
In the end, I don’t know how many folks in actual coal country are gonna take to Ghosts of West Virginia. The album raises a fist and points a finger at the people in power who allowed the Upper Big Branch disaster to happen– and at the people still in power who continue to ignore the struggle of every American worker across the country.
New West Records will release Ghosts of West Virginia on May, 22nd 2020. You can pre-order it here.