The Grammy winner and his Dukes summon up haunted memories with Ghosts of West Virginia
Artist: Steve Earle and The Dukes Album: Ghosts Of West Virginia Label: New West Records ★★★★ 1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
Allowing tragedy to serve as a stimulus for making music is nothing new.
Everyone from Robert Johnson to Bob Dylan to the individual Beatles have found that the best way to rally the masses is to sing songs that remind them of a dire incident that should have shaken the public’s consciousness but failed to do so at the time. Whether it was Woody Guthrie’s ode to the Mexican farmworkers killed in a plane crash at Los Gatos, Dylan’s lament for the murder of the young and innocent Emmett Till, or George Harrison’s plea to relieve the suffering of the people of Bangla Desh, it’s often left to our troubadours to turn history’s horrors into songs that can bring some kind of justice and closure to those that are left behind.
Steve Earle has never been reticent about expressing his outrage at the injury and injustice that results from the ill-fated decisions made by pundits and politicians. An insurgent by choice, his outlaw image and personal failings are well documented, but to his credit, he’s become a populist advocate and a stirring example of how an outlaw mantra can be turned into a stirring example of expressive Americana. Like his pals Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, Earl is master of fusing attitude and aptitude in equal measure.
Earle’s excellent new effort Ghosts of West Virginia revolves around the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed 29 miners in 2010, resulting in one of the worst mining disasters in American history. The idea for the album originated with a playwriting team consisting of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, who approached Earle to write the music for Coal Country, a play with music that recounts the disaster. Earle was intrinsically involved in the initial workshops, spending time onstage while performing the songs and offering context as well. His efforts not only paid off in terms of this subsequent collection, but also in one of the highest honors given in the theater world, that is, a nomination for a 65th Annual Drama Desk Award in the category of “Outstanding Music in a Play.” The ceremonies are scheduled to take place virtually on May 31.
For Earle, the new record also signals at least a slight change in tack. “I’ve already made the preaching-to-the-choir album,” he said in a statement, specifically referring to his controversial and contentious 2004 Grammy Award winning collection The Revolution Starts…Now. “I thought that, given the way things are now, it was maybe my responsibility to make a record that spoke to and for people who didn’t vote the way that I did. 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.”
If that seems somewhat magnanimous coming from a man normally known for his feisty disposition, his fans and followers can be assured that it hasn’t tempered his means of expression. Songs such as “It’s About Blood,” “Bad Lung” and “The Lung,” betray his usual gruff approach. “Goddamn right I’m emotional/I ain’t nothin’ but a man/Hell yes this is personal,” he declares on the aforementioned“It’s About Blood,” laying bare his feelings on a tragedy that never should have taken place and name checking the victims’ names at its conclusion.
Naturally, the rest of the set helps set the scene, from the opening acapella “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” through the homespun down-home rambles “Union, God and Country,” “Devil Put The Coal in the Ground” and “John Henry Was a Steel Drivin’ Man,” the latter apparently adapted from the well-trod traditional ballad. Nevertheless, one of the most incisive songs on the album finds Eleanor Whitmore, longtime member of Earle’s outstanding backing band the Dukes, taking a tender lead vocal for “If I Could See Your Face Again,” a song that gives a human face to the terrible loss inflicted on this Kentucky community.
Earle now seems to have reached the pinnacle of his career and happily so. As always, music with meaning always wins out.