Classic americana frequently involves a cause. And who better than Steve Earle to take up a cause? That’s what playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen thought when writing ‘Coal Country’, a play about a mining disaster. ‘Ghosts of West Virginia’, the 20th studio release by Steve Earle & The Dukes is the soundtrack to that stage show. The album pulls no punches. An uncompromising listen, its mono recording only amplifies Earle’s fury. He vents his disgust at the mining company, its boss (who after prison pursued a career in politics!) and above all, his feeling for those who suffered as only Steve Earle can with his searing lyrics matched by the musical power of The Dukes. Steve Earle has featured in ‘Classic Americana Albums’ but the inclusion of this much later release, an entire album around a single theme makes it a classic.
The production is about a huge explosion twelve years ago at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia that claimed the lives of 29 miners. Though a dangerous industry, the subsequent investigation found that the mine owner put its employees at even greater risk by its systematic neglect of safety measures which it tried to cover up.
Having teamed up with Earle, Blank and Jensen spent four years writing the script. They interviewed survivors and the families of the dead miners. Earle describes his role as a “Greek chorus with a guitar” because he was on stage throughout the production performing all seven songs about the disaster. These come first on ‘Ghosts of West Virginia’ before the focus widens to the plight of miners and others struggling to scrape a living in today’s America. As well as to the miners ‘Ghosts of West Virginia’ is also dedicated to Dukes bassist for three decades, Kelley Looney, who died just before recording began. This was a huge loss, not just of a band member but a dear friend. Jeff Hill from the Chris Robinson Brotherhood filled those big boots.
Like storm clouds gathering over the mountains of West Virginia, Earle sets the scene with a chill foreboding. Unaccompanied, he and the Dukes chant, “River Jordan is deep and wide/Heaven aint goin’ nowhere/Perilous crossing to the other side/I reckon heaven ain’t goin’ nowhere”. Together their hum between verses deepens that feeling of trepidation. If this is the miner’s lot then there’s not much to look forward to.
The only life on offer is, “Union God and County West Virginia golden blue, Union God and country was all we knew”. The cheerful brisk bluegrass of ‘Union God and Country’ just says make the best of it. It may be the only life but ’Devil Put the Coal in the Ground’ makes brutally clear it is a dangerous one. A lone banjo builds into a wild electric stomp as “I wake up in the morning and pray” shouts how the miners know they risk their lives every time they go underground.
Many will know the story of John Henry but in ‘John Henry was a Steel Drivin’ Man’ Earle reminds us that this figurehead of the working man’s roots are in West Virginia. Again the pace is quick, with a jaunty string line but lyrically Earle uses this icon to illustrate that life everywhere in this poor state is hard and the odds are stacked against the working man. ‘Time is Never on Our Side’ finds Earle at his balladeering best. To a lone fiddle and distant pedal steel his miner reflects on a life as entrapped as he must feel going down that mine shaft.
‘It’s About Blood’ is pure unadulterated anger. As vehemently as he has ever done Earle rages at the company’s complete obsession with profit, its total disregard for basic safety standards that doomed 29 miners as the explosion ripped through the underground death trap. The Dukes maintain a relentless riff throughout. In a roll call of tragedy Earle adds further venom by naming each dead miner.
What could follow such a barrage? Eleanor Whitmore’s ‘If I Could See Your Face Again’ is the miner’s wife lamenting her lost love. Gut wrenchingly sad she exudes great dignity. After that you might expect Earle to continue his totally justifiable fury with a similar intensity. Yet rather than the say, ‘The Revolution Starts Now’, he continues more along the lines of ‘The Gulf of Mexico’, his ballad of immense power about the the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. ‘Black Lung’ is the bleak reward of a working life down the mine. To a sound that goes way back to ‘Guitar Town’ ‘Fastest Man Alive’ is an escape from West Virginia but not so fast, ‘The Mine’ closes with reality, the only life on offer.
Never one to stand on the fence he tells a story, gives his view, shows deep emotions and all alongside one of the finest bands going. Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore are an established duo in their own right but with the other Dukes seem to fire an octane higher. For all these reasons ‘Ghosts of West Virginia’ is Steve Earle at his best and deserves inclusion on the ‘Classic Americana Albums’ shelf.