Thursday, July 9, 2020

Album Review: Steve Earle & The Dukes - Ghosts of West Virginia

Steve Earle & The Dukes
Ghosts of West Virginia
**** out of *****

Over the last few decades Steve Earle as a songwriter has found some inspired individual songs ("This City", "So You Want To Be An Outlaw" ), but few full length albums that are must hear. Things have changed on his most direct and focused release in a very long time, Ghosts of West Virginia.

Being brought onboard to provide music for a theater production called Coal Country found Earle writing music based on the devastating 2010 West Virginia Upper Big Branch mining explosion that killed 29 miners; this is recent history and the twisted political crossroads of West Virginian became fertile soil for Earle's skills.

Earle is an outspoken activist for (mostly liberal) political causes and he is never shy with his opinion but the tales he tells here are about life, death, struggles and pain which connect all. While the settings are coal mines and hollows, the acoustic instrumentation of The Dukes keeps things from weeping while Earl paints scene with complex histories or direct sledgehammering one-noteness with equal success.

Opening with "Heaven Ain't Goin' Nowhere", an acapella gospel scene setter style, the album states it's purpose via the statement song "Union, God and Country". The track gives a brief history of mining towns and family bonds while "Devil Put the Coal in the Ground" ominously uses percussive beats and lone banjo plucks in hypnotic head bopping fashion.

"John Henry was a Steel Drivin' Man" re-imagines the story of John Henry to truly modern times when man can't keep their jobs against machinery while the explosive "It's About Blood" directly addresses the Upper Big Branch mine explosion listing out the names of the 29 miners killed in metal folk fashion. The track is powerful jolt and when the album winds up with the mellow "The Mine" and the character trying to get a job in the mine to get a better car and impress his girl is already locked into their fate as sad and preventable events are set in motion.

A true folkie at heart Earl delivers the underdog goods on the musical flowing "Time Is Never On Our Side" and the gorgeously stunning "If I Could See Your Face Again" is delivered as an Irish folk widows lament with lead vocals sung by fiddler Eleanor Whitmore for the lovers left behind. "The Fastest Man Alive" gets the sawdust kicking up for the sashaying torrent of lyrics story song about West Virginian Chuck Yeager while  "Black Lung" is statement song of the pain of those who didn't die in the blast still live and die with, working in a dangerous industry.

The fact that the music was commissioned for a play, leads to some of the message being hammered home, but this if anything powers Ghosts of West Virginia, focusing Earle and The Dukes to deliver tunes with a yearning to be heard and understood.

Earle has mentioned that this album is for people who voted differently than him and see the world differently, but it doesn't take being a Republican or Democrat to see the hardships and the fault with the safety violations and cover ups that occurred during and after the Upper Big Branch explosion; a national tragedy which is sadly forgotten.
Support the artist, buy the album, stream it on bandcamp or below and peep some video: 


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