Steve Earle has never been afraid to dig deep. Or mix art with politics. But the outspoken singer-songwriter takes his musical activism to a new level — and in a new direction — on Ghosts of West Virginia. Earle’s 20th studio outing (counting a pair of collaborative efforts) is one of his darkest and most dramatic works: A concept album about the disastrous Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed 29 men in 2010. It’s also dramatic in the theatrical sense; Earle voices these songs from the perspective of the blue-collar miners and their families, forging empathy with his subjects instead of just preaching to the choir. Originally penned for a play called Coal Country and retooled here with full-band arrangements, these tales are pointed, passionate and potent — never more so than on It’s About Blood, when Earle recites the names of the miners who perished in the tragedy. Appropriately, these haunting stories are grounded in a rough-hewn assortment of timeless Americana — gothic Appalachian bluegrass, fingerpicked acoustic folk, bare-knuckled roots-rock, slapback-echo rockabilly, country balladry, even an a cappella piece midway between a gospel hymn and a work song. It all comes together into a masterful, moving and memorable creation from an artist who remains at the height of his powers — yet continues to push himself onward, upward and forward.
THE PRESS RELEASE: “Ghosts of West Virginia centers on the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed 29 men in that state in 2010, making it one of the worst mining disasters in American history. When asked about what drove him to craft his deeply evocative new album, Steve Earle says, “I thought that, given the way things are now, it was maybe my responsibility to make a record that spoke to and for people who didn’t vote the way that I did,” he says. “One of the dangers that we’re in is if people like me keep thinking that everybody who voted for Trump is a racist or an asshole, then we’re fucked, because it’s simply not true. So this is one move toward something that might take a generation to change. I wanted to do something where that dialogue could begin.” In 10 deftly drawn, roughly eloquent, powerfully conveyed sonic portraits, Earle and his long-time band The Dukes explore the historical role of coal in rural communities. More than merely a question of jobs and income, mining has provided a sense of unity and meaning, patriotic pride and purpose. “I said I wanted to speak to people that didn’t necessarily vote the way that I did,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean we don’t have anything in common. We need to learn how to communicate with each other. My involvement in this project is my little contribution to that effort. And the way to do that — and to do it impeccably — is simply to honor those guys who died at Upper Big Branch.”