GHOSTS OF WEST VIRGINIA
New West Records
A Magnificent History Lesson From One of America’s Greatest Ever Songwriters.
I’ve had a love affair with Steve Earle’s music most of my adult life. As with all long standing artists, he’s had his musical downs as well as (mostly) ups but his success rate means to me that he should be recognised as one of the top songwriters of his generation; if not all time.
This album is something of a concept album, mostly telling the story of the Upper Big Branch coal mining disaster of 2010, when twenty nine miners were killed. Subsequent courts cases resulted in proving the owners were responsible for the blast. Seven of the ten songs also feature in a play written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen called “Coal Country” Earle was also a part of the performances in New York before covid-19 shut it down.
The album and play opens with the acapella HEAVEN AIN’T GOING NOWHERE. Earle’s voice sounds like honey with broken rocks mixed in, rough and smooth at the same time.
UNION, GOD AND COUNTRY brings up an interesting point about this album. Most of us know what Steve Earle’s politics are and he has admitted that for some of the songs on here that he had to change his mind set. These songs represent people who are the mostly the steller opposite of what he believes in politically, but he has to put himself in their shoes to get the message of the people involved, across.
DEVIL PUT THE COAL IN THE GROUND, is a country song with a bluegrass backbone and makes it clear how hard the job is that only the devil could have made coal so difficult to mine.
John Henry is a name that turns up in a lot of Americana songwriting-especially Roots songs and JOHN HENRY WAS A STEEL DRIVIN’ MAN is perfect for this album as in his legend, Big Bend is the one of the places the story of his battle with machinery ‘could’ have taken place.
The most powerful song on the album is IT’S ABOUT BLOOD, and Steve sounds righteously angry, and considering the subject matter, he has a right to be, as we all should. “God damn right I’m emotional…..hell yeah this is personal“.
A brooding, dark guitar riff underscores the vocal as he talks about how the miners are not given any consideration to working practices and are just there to make money for the owners. You can here the venom in his voice has he reels off the names of the twenty nine people killed in the blast. A striking song and one of his very best; ever.
As much as I love Earle’s voice one of the most powerful songs on the album has a lead vocal by Eleanor Whitmore.
IF I COULD SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN is both beautiful and heartbreaking. This is also the song that closes the play.
The remaining three songs on the album, although connected to West Virginia are not performed in the play but do hold the album together.
BLACK LUNG has a great riff with mandolin and violin pushing the song a long with another great vocal, and FASTEST MAN ALIVE is about Chuck Elwood who was a WWII hero after being shot down, captured and then escaping.
In album closer THE MINE , the narrator tells of his struggles for him and his partner and never leaving the area because the mountains get in your blood and “there ain’t no way you’re gettin’ ’em out” but things will be better once he gets his act together “and my bother gets me on at the mine.”
This very much feels like a sister album to THE MOUNTAIN – Earle’s bluegrass album – and that is certainly not a bad thing. As with any Earle album, there is a lot to like in GHOSTS OF WEST VIRGINIA and a lot to make you think about.
Steve Earle continues to be a brilliant songwriter and this album is definitely up there with anything else he has done.
Review by Chris Harrison http://www.chrisharrisonphoto.co.uk/
Released 22nd May 2020