Steve Earle and the Dukes Decry Blue-Collar Tragedy on 'Ghosts of West Virginia'
Published May 19, 2020Steve Earle will leave you shaking in your boots as you listen to "It's About Blood."
Thankfully, you aren't the subject of the Americana veteran's ire on this standout track from his new album, Ghosts of West Virginia. Yet the long renowned songwriter — who's an even better performer — makes listeners viscerally feel every venomous syllable as he spits lyrics at bigwigs who exploit coal miners, leaving grieving relatives "waking up in the middle of the night alone." Equally fired up guitar, punchy percussion and Southern Gothic fiddle from the Hardcore Troubadour's trusty backup band the Dukes all help make "It's About Blood" even more pulse-pounding. To hear these long-toothed performers chew up the song's scenery so ravenously is to be thrilled by one of alt-country's most consistent and ambitious acts, 30 years after they broke through with the self-prophecizing classic "I Ain't Ever Satisfied."
Refusing to rest on your laurels is one thing. But here, the 65-year-old Earle and his dutiful Dukes have upped the ante by recording a concept album abounding with theatrical lyrics and socially conscious themes. Earle began penning many of these songs at the behest of acclaimed playwrights (and prior collaborators) Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, who wanted music for their new production Coal Country. Their play centers on the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia, where 29 miners died thanks to policies that placed profit over the workers' wellbeing.
Earle rises to that task with writing and performing worthy of a theatrical production (he was cast to sing many of these songs as a Greek chorus-esque narrator in Coal Country, which opened off-Broadway back in March). On "Time Is Never on Our Side," for instance, he brings his typical rasp to a tender world-weary hush while singing about the Upper Big Branch disaster being like "God reaching out and closing his hand." The song is fittingly rounded out by the Dukes' heart-wrenching violin and gentle-as-a-breeze percussion.
As a testament to the band and their leader's range, Ghosts also features latter half standout "Black Lung." That song's subject matter is arguably the heaviest of any on the album, especially when Earle's lyrics zero in on the emotional and physical tolls that the song's titular illness has had on slews of miners over the ages. That theme is sharply contrasted by the song's propulsive music, from the bluegrass-y fiddle and banjo to Earle's hoedown-worthy singing, and an electric guitar that purrs like a revved engine. Aside from its thorough catchiness, the song also works by staving off cheap sentimentality in favor of juxtaposed elements that give it complexity and an overall tone of steely determination. All that comes despite the haunting lyrics about a character rendered fatally breathless by his subterranean trade.
For a far more straightforward ode to those laborers, be sure to crank the volume "Devil Put the Coal in the Ground," one of the album's opening tracks. Its swaggering acoustic strumming mingles with a livewire electric guitar solo at the song's apex, while drums boom like the explosives used to break ground so miners can descend into danger. Earle, meanwhile, all but grits his teeth while snarling anthemic lyrics about the daunting task these laborers take on. His delivery is more speak-sing-y on the folkier "John Henry Was a Steel Drivin' Man," though Earle's palpable empathy for these disenfranchised workers is no less apparent, especially when he reaches a bitterly succinct verse about the weakening of the unions over time.
With its specificity and openhearted empathy, Earle and his band mates immerse listeners in a blue-collar tragedy on Ghosts of West Virginia, while also speaking to broader societal truths. Instead of digging up coal like the miners grippingly depicted in these new songs, the Hardcore Troubadour and the Dukes unearth anthemic gems for America's marginalized. (New West)