ALBUM REVIEW: Steve Earle & The Dukes – ‘Ghosts of West Virginia’

Words by Terresa Allen – Words & Music – Terresa Marie Allen

I opened the link to review ‘Ghosts of West Virginia’, Steve Earle & The Dukes (Chris Masterson, Eleanor Whitmore, Ricky Ray Jackson, Brad Pemberton and Jeff Hill) latest offering on the day 5 coal miners were rescued from the depths of a Central Queensland long wall mine. There had been an explosion deep underground and although all 5 were brought to the surface alive there’s no guarantee that they will survive their injuries, and no chance whatsoever that the experience won’t leave deep and lasting scars across the body and psyche of those effected for generations to come.  

So, it was with an eerie sense of serendipity that I sat and listened to what took shape on Earle’s 20th studio album. What I found was a poignant and heartfelt testament rendered through music and song to miners, their families and communities; stories of faith, love, loss, anger, despair and regret all stemming from the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia. Similarly, there had been an explosion deep underground at that site, only this time 29 miners lost their lives in an event for which the mine’s management would later be found culpable on many fronts.

Recorded in mono (due in part to Earle’s deteriorating hearing) at Electric Lady Studios, Greenwich Village – the studio originally built by Jimi Hendrix, the album threads its way through ten distinct, stark, yet artfully executed numbers. Seven of which Earle performs onstage as part of the production Coal Country. A theatre piece from writing team Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen based on the Upper Big Branch disaster, for which these songs were originally written. Coal County’s opening run in New York City, which began in March, has like most things has at present been interrupted by Covid – 19.  

Earle is a consummate story teller, he is after all the man that brought us Copperhead Road (1988) and his ability to convey with honesty and clarity perspectives that are not necessarily his own is up there with the best. Poignant and powerful the album opens in a cappella with Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, setting the scene with salt of the earth, spiritual simplicity as a reference point for the day to day lives of generations of miners.     

Next up, invoking the deep sense of bonds and connectedness that grows within a community where livelihoods are fraught with danger, generations of family work the same shifts and there exists an undeniable dependence on others for your safety is Union, God and Country. In it you hear clear and strong the marshalling forces of the heartlands holy trinity – religion, family and unions; the salve that is purported to deal with all that ails you and for many it’s all they have ever known.

Turn the corner and Devil Put The Coal In The Ground, is a little dirtier and a lot darker – speaking to the inherent dangers of earning a living from seams of precious cargo deep within the earth, it demonstrates without pretence the risks taken day in day out with one hell of a song expounding that coal mining is one a hell of a job.

John Henry Was A Steel Drivin’ Man is a far jauntier, outlining the old fashion tradesman as the hero, staying true to his roots against the advancements of de- unionisation and automation in the industry. That is followed up by one of my favourites, Time Is Never On Our Side, a lovely melancholy little tune filled with truisms about the passing of time and the things we convince ourselves of to endure the certainty that it’s all getting away from us. The simplicity and message of this tune are quite beautiful.

Earle and the band drum up the beat and turn up the angst with It’s About Blood, a hard hitting, straight shooting, bluesy number about the loss of the little guys in chase of big business. The song is interjected with the names of all the miners lost in the explosion at Upper Big Branch, a challenge that they not be forgotten and the reminder that they and the loss of their lives is exactly what and who this album is about.

If I Could See Your Face Again, a song of remembrance and regret is beautifully delivered by Eleanor Whitmore (who as part of The Dukes also plays fiddle on the album) capturing the cold, hard realisation that we take so much of the everyday for granted.

Black Lung comes in at number 8 in the storyline, but could well be the unreserved anthem of coal miners everywhere, without rancour or self-pity the song is sung from the perspective of a debilitated miner, one that knows he’s slowly dying of the dreaded work-related illness. It speaks to the incapacity and incompleteness of life as the result of an ailment that was both foreseeable and accepted as the price of making a living. The reality of the loaded shotgun nearby as disease clogs and chokes the breath from his lungs makes for vivid imagery and one of my personal favourites.

Track nine, Fastest Man Alive is a change of pace and with a swinging up beat tempo it’s in direct contrast to songs about those eking out a living underground. It’s a song based on a real-life war hero, who not only broke free of the mine shafts in his native West Virginal by flying high and fast, but also managed to break the sound barrier to boot.

Rounding out the album is The Mine, hauntingly Earle creates the spectre of an out of work, down on his luck miner, longing for better days and dreaming of a life down the mine despite the dangers. A life just keeping time, waiting on family and a job on the mine to rescue him from himself.

‘Ghosts of West Virginia’ is a story book album and stands in both tribute and protest to the lives of those men lost in the Upper Big Branch disaster, but the tracks are sure to strike a chord with coal miners, communities and underdogs everywhere. It is certainly one I won’t forget for a long time to come, such is the ability of Steve Earle & The Dukes to carry you on the journey with them, to tell complex truths with succinct raw eloquence amongst the precision playing, with heart-warming doses of banjo, fiddle, dobro and pedal steel guitar all making an appearance. The album also carries the memory of Kelley Looney, Earl’s long-term bassist, collaborator and friend, may he along with all the others that lost their live on that fateful day rest in peace.

‘Ghosts of West Virginia’ is available on the 22nd May 2020 from New West Records, but why not do yourself a favour and your pre- order your limited edition coloured vinyl copy now via New West or Earle’s website.

Pre order here:

NEW YORK, NY – December 14, 2019 – Steve Earle and the Dukes, Electric Lady Studios.

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