Haunted by history
Ghosts of West Virginia began its life when playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen approached Steve Earle to collaborate on their musical Coal Country about the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster in West Virginia in which 29 miners perished. Earle wrote the songs for the musical after accompanying Blank and Jensen on interviews with surviving minors and family members of those lost. Earle’s album acknowledges the emotional toll of this disaster on those who lived through and must live with the aftermath, but the album resonates beyond its subject.
The album begins with “Heaven Ain’t Going Nowhere,” an a Capella call and response between Earle’s gruff voice and an angelic chorus of voices where each of Earle’s declarations elicits a return of “Heaven ain’t going nowhere” of increasing urgency from the chorus.
The dramatic prelude is followed by Earle’s commentary and exploration of the lives of the miners, including “Union, God and Country” and “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground.” The songs offer contemporary political commentary grounded in folk tropes, which allows the album to stop short of growing didactic. Earle appeals to folk heroes both old and new, retelling the story of John Henry in “John Henry was a Steel Drivin’ Man” and memorializing West Virginia-native Chuck Yeager in “Fastest Man Alive.”
During performances of Coal Country, Earle performs the songs sitting on stage by himself like a guide through the heart-wrenching stories told on stage. The songs are at times laudatory and at times tender, but throughout the album, Earle commemorates the lives of his subjects, voicing feels best expressed through verse and harmony.
Ghosts of West Virginia includes three songs absent from Coal Country and features the Dukes backing Earle throughout the album, but Earle’s purpose remains the same. As a stand-alone work, the album is intricate and energetically paced. Earle and his band demonstrate their ability to tell an extended story in many smaller parts which function as discrete stories and contribute to the whole album. Earle’s rough vocals are complimented by unapologetic driving beats, forceful guitars and slick fiddle parts.
Ghosts of West Virginia concludes on a hopeful note with “The Mine,” which shows Earle looking forward to something better, acknowledging and exalting the difficult course for those affected by the mine. Amidst the political and economic story Earle seeks to tell, he maintains that Ghosts of West Virginia is a story about the lives of real people.