Steve Earle examines a mining tragedy to engage listeners across the political spectrum on Ghosts of West Virginia | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Steve Earle examines a mining tragedy to engage listeners across the political spectrum on Ghosts of West Virginia 

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click to enlarge Steve Earle & the Dukes

Steve Earle & the Dukes

Jacob Blickenstaff

On April 5, 2010, a coal-dust explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia, killed 29 miners. Though subsequent investigations found that a pervasive pattern of negligence and safety violations had led to the entirely preventable tragedy, in 2015 Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship got off with a slap on the wrist: a single misdemeanor conviction for conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards and a one-year prison sentence. In 2018 he unsuccessfully ran for Senate as a Republican and—lest anyone think he’s the least bit repentant for his role in such a massive loss of life—he’s currently running for president with the far-right-wing Constitution Party. The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster briefly cast a bright national light on Appalachia, including the big-business exploitation of local workers and natural resources, the bitter class divides among its communities, and the love-hate relationship its residents have with a fading industry that’s shaped so much of the region’s economy and cultural life. All of these conversations coalesce on Steve Earle’s 20th studio album, Ghosts of West Virginia. He wrote seven of the ten songs on Ghosts for Coal Country, a play by “documentary theater” playwrights Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank that premiered at New York’s Public Theater in early March. Earle adapted gospel, country, bluegrass, and blues to a narrative-song style, and while he played the material solo onstage during the play’s run, on the album he’s backed by his band, the Dukes. While some of his compositions, including “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “If I Could See Your Face Again,” sound ancient, he makes the traditional “John Henry” his own (John Henry is also the name of one of Earle’s sons, so I bet he’s wanted to put his spin on that tune for a long time). Earle, who is well-known for his leftist leanings, has said that he wants to engage with people who aren’t on his side of the political spectrum, and in West Virginia, left-right divisions also play out in a decades-long struggle between those devoted to coal as a traditional way of life and those who have turned toward environmental activism and a postcoal economy. “Union, God and Country” is Earle’s stab at opening the conversation by finding shared ground in West Virginia’s history of fierce labor battles, which is a source of pride for many locals. “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” is a country-blues stomper that puts a dead-on folkloric spin on the contradiction of loving coal and hating it. The album’s heart is probably the brooding, furious “It’s About Blood,” which ends with a spoken-word vigil: a recitation of the names of all 29 men who perished in the mine explosion. But Earle prevents the record from wallowing in despair—and helps protect it from accusations that it’s the sort of poverty porn rightly criticized in the region—by lightening the mood with “Fastest Man Alive,” which celebrates one of West Virginia’s favorite sons, ace pilot Chuck Yeager.   v

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