Album Review – Steve Earle’s “Ghosts of West Virginia”

photo: Kyle Coroneos

Here in the late career era of alt-country originator Steve Earle, he has earned the latitude to do whatever the hell he wants. And as the surly and opinionated soul with no shits given that Steve Earle has comfortably settled into, he takes that liberty. Recording tributes to his close friends and fellow songwriters Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt? Sure. A full record of blues songs? Why not. His legacy is cemented, and his hits are secured. Start mouthing “Da na na na na na!” in machine gun fashion, and most everyone gets the reference to the title track of his triple Platinum record Copperhead Road.

This time around Steve Earle’s charge is somewhat unusual though. Instead of simply putting together a new album of original songs or re-recording someone else’s, Earle was conscripted to assemble the soundtrack for a play called Coal Country that ran at New York’s Public Theater earlier this year. It is based off of the 2010 tragedy at the Upper Big Branch coal mine where 29 people perished in an explosion, and subsequent investigations discovered safety violations and cover-ups. The playwrights created a stage production around this true story with Steve Earle appearing personally at moments in the play to sing some of the songs found on this new album.

Steve Earle has always centered much of his songwriting around character. Many of his songs follow a “This is who I am, this is what I do, this is how I think” kind of formula, growling out some life story of a downtrodden character captured in a 3 or 4 minute parable, melody optional. That’s how Earle’s minted folk heroes out of fictional characters such as John Lee Pettimore III. (Da na na na na na.) In truth, this Steve Earle songwriting approach can feel a little tired and repetitive at times. But writing specifically for a soundtrack about the miners of West Virginia, and with Earle’s championing of the blue collar worker that draws a straight line from the influences of Woody Guthrie, this character-driven approach is rendered advantageous for The Ghosts of West Virginia.

You’re gonna get a few songs on here that will not contribute much to the rich and rewarding canon of coal mining canticles from yesteryear, but that’s partly because this album serves the dual purpose of moving the story of a stage play forward as well. “Union, God, and Country” feels a little perfunctory, as do some of the other tracks leaning on cliches of the coal song discipline. Songs about “John Henry” (in coal mining or otherwise) are a dime a dozen, and the one on this record is no different.

But beyond the songs meant to fit into the established narrative of the Coal Country stage production, you get some really stirring moments, starting with the a capella Gospel performance “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” that starts off the record. Members of Earle’s backing band The Dukes raise spirits and inspire chills from the archaic evocation of Appalachian culture.

The hopeless, but stirring “Time Is Never On Our Side” marks a much more thoughtful and dedicated approach to composition from Mr. Earle. This leads into the centerpiece of the record, the snarling “It’s About Blood” that among other things captures Steve Earle reading off the names of the 29 victims of the Upper Big Branch disaster. At this point, Earle reaches full blown alt-rock mode with a palpable fury for those lost needlessly, imbued with sympathy for their survivors.

The Ghosts of West Virginia isn’t all severe notions and rage though. Recounting the story of a West Virginia boy turned fighter pilot on “Fastest Man Alive” adds a little fun to the otherwise dark and dreary mood. Eleanor Whitmore singing “If I Could See Your Face Again” offers some much needed warmth to the record, despite the somber mood. And the final song “The Mine” works in more nuanced themes that articulate how coal mining may mean indentured servitude to some, but it means gracious opportunity to others in a region known for being devoid of it. As many people pray to make it out of the mines, many pray to make it in them. That’s the level of destitution certain areas of West Virginia face.

Not to nit pick, but there’s some weird mixing or mastering issues with a few of the harder and grittier tracks on the record, namely “Devil Put The Coal in the Ground” and “It’s About Blood.” The drums are way down in the mix when they beg to be more present, and Earle’s vocals are muffled in a way that’s dissimilar to the other tracks. Whether it’s accidental or intentional, it takes away from those songs.

Just like you probably didn’t dwell on the Guy and Townes tributes from Steve Earle unless you’re a dedicated Steve Earle fan, The Ghosts of West Virginia will be considered an admirable project, but not one to get stuck in your listening rotation for the rest of the year, even if you come back to revisit songs like “It’s About Blood.” But it works very well for its purpose as a soundtrack, as well as a late career Steve Earle record, validating he’s still got the drive and the chops to take characters and stories and mold them into compelling songs.


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