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Steve Earle knows how to tell a story.
When he writes about people, he does so in a way that makes you feel like you know those people or certainly people just like them who’ve been through the same damn things they have.
When he writes about a place or an event, the images he conjures up are so real you can almost reach out and touch them.
To be able to write like that is a gift.
And Earle puts that gift to the very best of use on Ghosts of West Virginia, a song cycle consisting of 10 songs, the central focus of which is the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed 29 men in 2010.
Investigations into the Upper Big Branch explosion, one of the worst mining disasters in American history, revealed hundreds of safety violations, as well as attempts to cover them up. It eventually cost the company $200 million.
Through these songs, Earle and his long-time band, the Dukes, explore the historical role of coal in rural communities where mining was not just about jobs and making money but also about unity and meaning, patriotic pride and purpose.
Sons followed their fathers and older brothers into the mines forging bonds that lasted for several generations.
“You can’t just tell these people that you’re going to shut the coal mines without also telling them what you’re going to do to take care of them, to protect their lives,” says Earle, a longtime proponent of sustainable energy sources and ending fossil fuels.
“But that doesn’t mean a thing in West Virginia. You can’t begin communicating with people unless you understand the texture of their lives, the realities that provide significance to their days.”
And that, he says, is the entire point of Ghosts of West Virginia.
- In It’s About Blood, Steve Earle intones the names of all 29 miners who died in the Upper Big Branch explosion.
- Earle sings all but one song on the record, a ballad of memory, longing and loss called If I Could See Your Face, which is beautifully sung by Eleanor Whitmore, Earle’s fiddle and mandolin player in the Dukes.
Earle started working on the album after being approached by playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, who would eventually create Coal Country, a theatre piece about the Upper Big Branch disaster.
He had previously worked with them on The Exonerated, an Off-Broadway play about wrongfully imprisoned people who ultimately proved their innocence and got released.
Blank and Jensen interviewed the surviving West Virginia miners, along with the families of the miners who died, and created monologues for their characters using those words. Working closely with artistic director Oskar Eustis they workshopped the songs and text for nearly four years. Earle functions as “a Greek chorus with a guitar”, in his words. He is on stage the entire play and, along with his song, The Mountain, performs seven songs from Ghosts of West Virginia.
These songs provide personal, historical and social context for the testimony of the play’s characters, and heard on their own, along with the album’s three additional songs, they provide a deeply emotional and gut-wrenching portrait of a world that Earle knows well.
“I felt that I could do it because so many of those people own Copperhead Road – and I talk like this,” Earle says.
From the opening cut, the a cappella spiritual, Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, to the closing notes of The Mine, which speaks to the hopes and fraternal bonds a job in the mines once represented, this record is an emotional roller coaster. While what ultimately happened at Upper Big Branch devastated many families there are moments on this record that are uplifting and inspire both respect and admiration for those who toil in the mines and accept the risks that come with that.
Among the songs well worth a listen are Union God and Country, a nod to the deep union history of the West Virginia mines, Devil Put the Coal in the Ground, which recognizes both the dangers of the mining life and the pride of doing such a demanding job in the face of those dangers, and Time Is Never On Our Side, which was inspired by the four-day wait that Upper Big Branch families endured while rescue teams searched for missing miners.
(Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars)
Doug Gallant is a freelance writer and well-known connoisseur of a wide variety of music. His On Track column will appear in The Guardian every second Thursday. To comment on what he has to say or to offer suggestions for future reviews, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.