music reviews

ghosts of west virginia

by Jason A. Bermiller

Steve Earle & The Dukes

"the most concentrated and focused release he’s produced for the past several years"

"Ghosts stands as one of his best albums of his entire syllabus."

Ghosts of West Virginia

by Jason A. Bermiller

Steve Earle’s storied career spans over 35 years now, and his latest offering with his famed band The Dukes is the most concentrated and focused release he’s produced for the past several years. This may be because the album is a soundtrack to a theatrical project by documentary filmmaker Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen titled Coal Country. It tells the story of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster on April 5th, 2010 in Montcoal, West Virginia. 29 people died in that explosion caused by coal dust that hiked methane to lethal levels in the mine. Those levels were determined to be the fault of Massey Energy’s failure to provide adequate ventilation. It was also found that Massey Energy bosses threatened miners if they voiced concerns over the safety of the mine. Criminal matters, including breaching federal laws and guidelines, continue to this day. So, the story was ripe for Blank to take a hold of it and create a project. Earle was invited to write songs for the project, and the result is the first seven songs on Ghosts Of West Virginia. None of the songs on Ghosts are built from mumble-tracks or from letting “flow” occur in a studio. Like other projects that invite popular artists to create a soundtrack, such as Peter Frampton’s Hummingbird In A Box: Songs For A Ballet or Miles Davis’ A Tribute To Jack Johnson, Earle’s Ghosts Of West Virginia has a concentration toward composition, binding the songs on the album more cohesively and coherently than evident in any previous release by Earle.

The album opens with a choral lament, a sort of emotionally-inverted hymn called “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, a natural choice for Earle given the material for which he was composing. Hymns normally praise God for His Providence, but “Heaven Ain’t Going’ Nowhere” is burdened with the tragic reality of a miner’s plight, a plight weighed down by Fate’s cruel hand. While Earle’s earlier work blends performance and story-telling folk-inspired melodies, this album is a series of thoughtful pieces, sewn together with this theme (do not read “ideology”) of Fate and vain hope for Providence.

“Union, God And Country” gathers the heritage of three generations of West Virginian miners into a traditional country-folk toe-tapper. Reminiscent of the message of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons”, the song bemoans the tragic poverty that miners face in the Appalachians. Stripped down to the meanest of traditional folk and heralding early English art song, “Devil Put The Coal In The Ground” breaks through as clear and hard as a miner’s pick through freshly found coal. It has, as Bob Dylan noted about Woody Guthrie’s work, a timeless nature to it, transcending genre and entering the realm of great Americana.

“John Henry Was a Steel Driven’ Man” is a 21st Century retake on the traditional song, re-expressing the plight of the hard-working miner. The longest song on the album, “It’s About Blood” rings with the same lament that opened the album. Earle’s inflections grant the song an appropriate dose of guts and anger. The call for social justice is clear in the lyrics:

“Once upon a time in America
A man knew where he stood
Nowadays just getting by is a miracle”

The song ends with a reading of the 29 dead in the Massey Energy Disaster. Earle’s voice has the same urgency that appears in the refrain at the end of Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The only thing missing is Crosby’s cries. Earle leaves those for you to provide.

The Coal Country pieces on the album end with “If I Could See Your Face Again”, sung by Eleanor Whitmore. The bereavement suffered by the miners’ wives and lovers is exquisitely and plaintively presented in this ballad, one of the most beautiful songs to come from Earle.

The album has three additional cuts that express other stories of coming from West Virginia coal country. The first of these three, “Black Lung”, has a Johnny Horton feel to it. Marching straight to the tunnels rather than down the Mississippi, the narrator of “Black Lung” vacillates between faith in God and a tragic submission to Fate, the theme that permeates Ghosts. He is going to die of black lung. As “Heaven Ain’t Going’ Nowhere” states “Don’t worry about putting’ nothin’ away (Heaven ain’t goin’ nowhere) Money’s no good come the judgement day”, so “Black Lung” simply claims,

“Black lung never gets better
Every breath a little bit harder to draw
Shotgun loaded in the corner
But I reckon I’m a lie here and die of black lung”

A brisk, upbeat bright spot, “Fastest Man Alive” tells the story of Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot who originally came from West Virginia but escaped the fate of being a miner. The triumphant line “I come from West Virginia, I’m the fastest man alive” has that edge that only Earle can deliver. A fusion of traditional country with a sprinkling of rock ’n’ roll, the song is a welcome relief from the hopelessness of the narratives that permeate the rest of the album. The relief is offered as a story from an area where such a triumph is rare, where such freedom with open sky above is rare. “Fastest Man Alive” almost sounds like it’s a cruel story to be told in West Virginia, for, like most Hollywood stories, the chances of anyone from the area Yeager was born having such a life amongst the clouds is highly unlikely. So, the album must descend once more below ground.

Earle closes Ghosts with the darkest piece on this release: “The Mine”. The narrator, an alcoholic husband trying to get back on track, tells his wife that it’ll get better once he gets on shift at the mine and makes some money. The song stands alone as a sad story, but, given what the listener of this album has already heard, his promises are as hollow as the tunnels that wind underground, tunnels that exploded, collapsed and maimed or killed many men over generations, leaving behind only ghosts.

Earle claims that he hopes that he created the songs on the album to express the lives, thoughts and ideas of those who don’t share his political views. Whether he has accomplished his goal of opening “a dialogue” in these divisive times remains to be seen. Regardless, Ghosts stands as one of his best albums of his entire syllabus.

Ghosts of West Virginia

Artist: Steve Earle & The Dukes
Album: Ghosts Of West Virginia
Release Date: May 22, 2020
Label: New West Records

Steve Earle: Guitar, Banjo, Mandolin, and Vocal
Chris Masterson: Guitar and Vocal
Eleanor Whitmore: Fiddle, Vocal, and String Arrangements
Billy Ray Jackson: Pedal Steel Guitar, Dobro and Vocal
Jeff Hill: Acoustic and Electric Bass and Vocal
Brad Pembleton: Drums, Percussion, and Vocal

Erik Jensen: Vocal on “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”

1. Heaven Ain’t Going’ Nowhere, 1:40
2. Union, God And Country, 2:23
3. Devil Put The Coal In The Ground, 2:54
4. John Henry Was A Steel Drivin’ Man, 2:54
5. Time Is Never On Our Side, 2:56
6. It’s About Blood, 4:35
7. If I Could See Your Face Again, 2:57
8. Black Lung, 3:20
9. Fastest Man Alive, 2:52
10. The Mine, 2:49