Compassion and emphathy. Two of the easiest ideals for someone to say he or she posesses. Yet two of the hardest ideals to actually see in action, particularily in regards to the gulf divide between left and right in 21st Century American politics. Thus it’s ironic to find Steve Earle, an artist who falls about as far left as one can on the political spectrum, giving a voice to the disenfranchised Appalachian miner that the modern left has thrown aside. Yet it shouldn’t be surprising. Earle has shown a propensity for compassion throughout his career, something he no doubt learned from his own mentors and cerebral life experiences.
It’s with this context that we find Steve Earle writing and recording Ghosts of West Virginia in honor of the 29 miners who lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. A blatant disregard for human life and flauting of safety violations in the name of the dollar caused a coal dust explosion on April 5, 2010. It sent a horrific chill through the Appalachian Mountains. Yet the executives, including Don Blankenship, essentially got off with just slaps on the wrists; it should be enough to still send one into a fury today.
In a statement announcing the album, Earle said, “You can’t begin communicating with people unless you understand the texture of their lives, the realities that provide significance to their days. That is the entire point of Ghosts of West Virginia.”
Earle continued by saying, “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.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries in art and politics, Earle wants to create a dialogue. He feels the need to reach out and convince others to rethink their positions or support of certain policies through compassion and understanding. That’s how real change occurs. And it’s what Earle accomplishes with Ghosts of West Virginia.
One of the more unique aspects of Ghosts of West Virgnia is the way Earle is able to mix his own contemporary sound and songwriting with originals that sound as though they could’ve been written and recorded by Merle Travis or Hazel Dickens. “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” and “Black Lung” could be taken back in time and put on the excellent and landmark Harlan County USA soundtrack.
The album kicks off with “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” a haunting and classically folk-sounding song with a hint of both nihilism and the idea that something better awaits in Heaven. “Don’t worry about put nothin’ away, Heaven ain’t goin’ nowhere/Cause money’s no good come judgement day, I reckin’ Heaven ain’t going nowhere,” Earle sings. Hell of a way to start the album, leaving nothing to the imagination about the direction the album will take.
“Union, God and Country” follows as a summation of fact about the coal mining life and the ideals the mining community held. “Work your fingers to the bone, and you couldn’t show a thing…that’s why they made the union, they had nothin’ left to lose.”
The heart of Ghosts of West Virginia can be found in a three song run in the middle of the record. “Time Is Never On Our Side,” “It’s About Blood,” and “If I Could See Your Face Again” run the gauntlet of emotion and reaction to life and death in the Appalachians.
“Time Is Never On Our Side” is a song of acceptance as Earle sings about taking “whatever fate provides.” The production is beautiful with subtle licks of steel guitar providing texture for the mostly acoustic arrangment. Indeed, the production across the album is so masterful. The angry songs have plenty of bite while Earle allows the more subdued songs room to breathe.
“It’s About Blood” is the best song on the record. The guitar tone is vintage Steve Earle- think the I Feel Alright era- and the songwriting is Earle at his angriest. “Hell yes, this is more personal,” Earle sings to the executives and politicians who allowed the Upper Big Branch Disaster to happen. The chorus is vintage protest: “It’s about fathers, it’s about sons, it’s about lovers waking up in the middle of the night alone/It’s about muscle, it’s about bone, it’s about a river runnin’ thicker than water, and it’s about blood.” No doubt what Earle and the countless miners think of the incident. “Don’t wanna hear about the state of the economy, fiscal reality, profit,and loss/none of that matters once your underground anyway.” There aren’t many better artists than Earle at cutting through the B.S. and singing about reality; “It’s About Blood” is arguably Earle’s greatest contribution to his storied discography. The end of the song then finds Earle naming every miner who died on that April day.
After the anger and venom of “It’s About Blood,” Earle chose “If I Could See Your Face Again” to follow. Sung entirely by band-member Eleanor Masterson of The Mastersons, “If I Could See Your Face Again” is a fantastic change of pace. Haunting and heart-breaking, the widowed narrator sings about a lover lost to death in the mines. Steel guitar and lush strings are scattered quietly behind Eleanor’s vocals. “Maybe we could find a town/dreams aren’t buried underground.” One of the best lines we’ll hear in music this year.
“John Henry Was a Steel Drivin’ Man” finds Earle channeling his Woody Guthrie as he sings about the legendary John Henry who, in folklore, beat a drilling machine while racing to clear a tunnel before his heart gave out. It’s a lesson about Appalachian culture. Even in victory, there’s a morbid acceptance that progress is always right around the corner.
One of the lighter moments on the album is “Fastest Man Alive.” Similar to Springsteen’s “Open All Night” off Nebraska, “Fastest Man Alive” is a rockabilly anthem with plenty of fiddle.
Ghosts of West Virgnia concludes with “The Mine.” It’s a fitting coda and the most hopeful song on the album. Earle said everything he needed to in the first nine songs, and now from a miner’s perspective, Earle sings, “Hey, babe, I know it’s hard these days, babe, when you’re sick and tired/It can only get better, I know it’s just a matter of time.”
Steve Earle won’t be cornered, and refuses to be labeled. Ghosts of West Virginia is not just a great album. It’s one of Earle’s best. Hearing compassion and empathy from one of the most outspoken artists of the past 50 years is a breath of fresh air in an environment that sorely lacks dialogue and understanding. But make no mistake- Earle believes what he believes, and he doesn’t sugarcoat a thing as exemplified by “It’s About Blood” and the consequences of corporate execurives run amok in “If I Could See Your Face Again.”
Steve Earle was mentored by Guy Clark, Townes van Zandt, and Waylon Jennings. He came up in Nashville and Texas with Rodney Crowell. And he’s provided inspiration to the younger alternative country artists of today. It’s a brilliant full-circle of apprenticeships and lessons. And as long as Steve Earle keeps making music, we’ll know exactly where he stands. Agree or disagree, count on that.