We live in strange times. No one is more aware of that than Steve Earle. “One of the dangers that we’re in is if people like me keep thinking that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist or an asshole, then we’re fucked, because it’s simply not true.” Ghosts of West Virginia, his new album, shed lights of some of the things that are wrong with the United States. “I think what’s killing this country more than anything else — coronavirus notwithstanding — is a virus borne of us not understanding each other, and not understanding what we have in common.”
Looking through that lens, Earle and The Dukes cast a jaundiced eye at the Upper Big Branch coal mine where twenty-nine people died in an explosion back in 2010. Investigations revealed safety violations, not to mention cover-ups. Yet, thanks to the U.S. legal system, miners’ families never had their day in court. The album is the result of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s theatre piece about the disaster. Earle serves as the plays Greek chorus, complete with guitar.
Singing acappella, the last lines of ‘Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ set the scene for everything that follows. Earle sings, “Don’t worry about putting nothin’ way,” as the band chimes in, “heaven ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Then Earle adds, “Money’s no good come judgment day.” Following up, ‘Union, God and Country‘ is a hoedown tribute to unions and their continuing battle way against a way of life designed to hinder the miners’ ability to ever substantially get ahead.
The simple guitar pattern of ‘Time Is Never On Our Side’ belies the crushing weight of a miner’s life. “The morning that the world began, God reached out and closed his hand, and when it opened up again a moment vanished in the wind. And since that day it’s never stopped no matter how you wind the clock.” There’s a palpable sadness to Earle’s voice, a weight to the words hinting at the horrors to come.
The full force of Earle’s fury unfurls on ‘It’s About Blood’. Amidst the barely contained bile and anger of guitars and fiddle, lyrics get spit out, “Once upon a time in America, working man knew where he stood. Nowadays just getting by is a miracle probably couldn’t give it up if I could. Don’t wanna hear about the state of the economy, fiscal reality, profit and loss, none of that matters when you’re underground anyway, damn sure can’t tell me nothin’ bout cost.” The reality really hits home when Earle begins to spit out the names of the 29 people who died because of corporate greed.
Music has power, and in an era where people feel more and more powerless the songs of Steve Earle and The Dukes put voice to the silent servants forced to cater to corporate largess. Ghosts of West Virginia is a testament to the tyranny perpetuated to keep people under the thumb of captains of industry who have no concern for the damage they inflict.