On 5 April, 2010, in Raleigh County, West Virginia, leaking methane from a coal seam in one of Massey Energy’s mines, known as Upper Big Branch, caused a huge fire and then exploded, killing 29 miners. The company were found to have consistently breached safety procedures and the boss, Don Blankenship, was jailed as a result.
Some years later writers Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen asked Steve Earle to write songs about the disaster for a play they were staging, called Coal Country. This is the context for Steve Earle & The Dukes‘ Ghosts Of West Virginia (22 May 2020; New West Records), which some have described as a masterpiece.
Certainly left-leaning activist Earle had a challenge on his hands as 68 per cent of the West Virginian electorate voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, and so his normal angle on ‘ordinary working people being failed by heartless capitalism’ had to be carefully addressed. In fact Earle skilfully achieves this objective by not directly referencing the tragedy, the company, or those responsible for the disaster; instead he powerfully names each of the dead miners in turn in It's About Blood. In the process he gives the miners dignity and respect by focusing on their personal struggles and outlooks. "I thought that, given the way things are now," Earle explains in the album’s press pack, "it was maybe my responsibility to make a record that spoke to and for people who didn't vote the way that I did."
In this effort, Earle is well supported by the Dukes, who include bassist Jeff Hill, who replaces long-serving Earle collaborator Kelley Looney, who passed away in November 2019. They are joined by Chris Masterson, Eleanor Whitmore, Ricky Ray Jackson, and drummer Brad Pemberton. The album was recorded in New York’s legendary Electric Lady Studios, of Jimi Hendrix fame, and interestingly, the whole set was recorded in mono because of Earle’s failing hearing.
The album kicks off with an a cappella gospel song entitled Heaven Ain't Goin' Nowhere, which gives a spiritual context to what is to come. “Don’t worry about puttin’ nothin’ away, Money’s no good come the Judgement Day” Earle gruffly sings, while being backed by the singing band. This is followed by the twanging intro to Union, God and Country, which at least in the live version is interpreted by Earle’s signature Martin M-21. Next up is the wonderful Devil Put the Coal in the Ground, which Earle plays on a banjo, on a song that could easily have been written and sung by Tom Waits.
The folk-inspired Time Is Never on Our Side is soon after followed by the heart-wrenching If I Could See Your Face Again, in which Eleanor Whitmore produces a breath-taking performance as one of the widows of the deceased. "If I could touch you one more time, just to hold your hand in mine, I'd never let it go again, I promise, And maybe we would find a town, Where dreams aren't buried underground, And not so many ghosts around to haunt us," she sings.
Black Lung also has great lyrics but it is the raw It's About Blood, which again tugs at the heart strings, and is in many ways the heart of the album. Apart from the aforementioned naming of each tragic miner Earle draws on bluegrass music and his trademark growl to croon “For every man that died for a coal company dollar, A lung full of dust and a heart full of lies”, backed by the Dukes who increasingly whip up a storm of sound with their guitars and violins.
In Ghosts of West Virginia Earle has produced a classic by reining in his activist instincts to reach out to working-class Americans who in the great majority do not think as he does. In doing so he has both produced some of his best songs in years and given dignity to a community and a disaster that never should have happened.