With their new album Ghosts of West Virginia (New West Records) Americana music stalwarts Steve Earle & The Dukes tell the story, in song, of the deadliest coal mine explosion in American history – the Upper Big Branch explosion in West Virginia that claimed 29 lives in 2010.
Born out of the music Earle wrote for the play Coal Country and his desire to tell the stories of people who may not agree with him politically, it is an unequivocal 21st-century American classic.
The ten songs contained therein constitute a contemplative, angry, and ultimately heartbreaking document of life, death, capitalism, greed, and the American dream that is universal in thought and emotion. There are pieces of all of our lives as Americans in these songs, which serve to testify to Earle’s stature as one of our greatest bards.
While each song tells an integral part of the story that Earle is weaving and contains their own individual merit, songs of particular note include the snarling “Devil Put the Coal In the Ground,” the folk – driven “John Henry Was A Steel Drivin’ Man,” and the furious centerpiece of the album “It’s About Blood.”
It’s on this last song, when an impassioned Earle ferociously speaks the names of the 29 miners killed in the explosion, that he achieves a spirited musical moment reminiscent of Roger Daltrey’s cathartic scream at the end of The Who’s classic “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Unlike that scream, however, there is no catharsis achieved in this song, only grief, exasperation, and unresolved rage that the owners of the mine caused, through their negligence, the explosion to occur in the first place.
The song that follows it on the album, the pain soaked “If I Could See Your Face Again” is perfectly sequenced in that it succinctly captures the emotionality that Earle has created. Sung by his bandmate Eleanor Whitmore, the song pierces the heart mainly because if you simply change the specifics of the individual and the circumstances, Whitmore’s singing could be any one of us mourning or wailing over a loved one we have lost to the cruel hand of death.
In Earle’s view, not only are these coal miners and their families our fellow Americans caught in the vice of seemingly inescapable circumstances, they are also our fellow human beings living, suffering, and dying in ways that all of us can relate to in one way or another.
Earle, with Ghosts of West Virginia, is telling us all that the only way out of our current madness as a country is to recognize that we are all more alike than we are different. Want change? Earle is imploring us that we all start by seeing our perceived adversaries as our fellow citizens and human beings.
Ghosts of West Virginia by Steve Earle & The Dukes is now available on his website .
Credits: Guitar, Banjo, Mandolin, Vocals, Written-By – Steve Earle, Guitar, Vocals – Chris Masterson, Acoustic Bass, Electric Bass, Vocals – Jeff Hill, Drums, Percussion, Vocals – Brad Pemberton, Fiddle, Vocals, Arranged By [String Arrangements] – Eleanor Whitmore, Vocals – Erik Jensen, Produced by Steve Earle