In his liner notes for his 20th studio album, Ghosts of West Virginia, Steve Earle recounts being approached by playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen about Coal Country, a documentary about the 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed 29 men and led to investigations that uncovered a wide array of safety violations and put the spotlight on Massey Energy and its Chairman and CEO, Don Blankenship. For the play, Earle composed the music and acts as a Greek chorus of sorts, addressing the audience throughout the performance with songs that reflect the narrative.
Those songs make up the bulk of Ghosts of West Virginia, but they don’t point fingers or pound the gavel; neither Massey Energy nor its CEO is ever mentioned. (The 29 miners who lost their lives are, however, one-by-one and by name, at the end of the powerful “It’s About Blood.”) The tragedy itself is never directly addressed. Instead, the lyrics reflect the life, attitude, and struggles of the people that call coal country home.
By emphasizing the humanity of the people that live in the region, Earle approaches the story with empathy and an attempt to understand that’s mostly missing these days. “I thought that, given the way things are now,” Earle explains in the press materials to the album, “it was maybe my responsibility to make a record that spoke to and for people who didn’t vote the way that I did.” It’s the right choice; by doing so, the album is given a timeless feel. Much like 1999’s The Mountain, his project with the Del McCoury Band, Ghosts of West Virginia reflects a way of life and a way of making a living that hasn’t changed much at all in many generations.
Even though the music of the region is reflected in songs like “Union, God and Country” and an updated take on the timeless man vs. machine legend in “John Henry Was a Steel Drivin’ Man”, unlike The Mountain, Ghosts of West Virginia is hardly, strictly bluegrass. The guitars, dobros, banjos, and mandolins of Chris Masterson, Ricky Ray Jackson, and Earle, along with the pounding drums of Brad Pemberton and bass by newest Duke, Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s Jeff Hill (due to the untimely passing of longtime beloved Earle sidekick Kelley Looney), combine into pummeling weapons of defiance on the aforementioned “It’s About Blood” as well as “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” and the chilling “Black Lung”.
Elsewhere, Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle and vocals, and the other half of the Mastersons with husband Chris) delivers a devastating vocal on the album’s most gut-wrenching track, “If I Could See Your Face Again”, detailing the life of a widow after losing her husband to the coalmine. “If I could touch you one more time,” she sings, “just to hold your hand in mine / I’d never let it go again, I promise / And maybe we would find a town / Where dreams aren’t buried underground / And not so many ghosts around to haunt us.”
Ghosts of West Virginia was recorded at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village with Earle’s longtime cohort, Ray Kennedy — the other half of the Twangtrust — engineering. They mixed the album entirely in mono, mainly due to Earle’s partial hearing loss, which leaves him unable to decipher stereo separation fully, resulting in a robust fidelity rarely heard these days.
What’s most striking is not how it’s recorded, but what’s recorded. Ghosts of West Virginia astutely captures and empathically chronicles the lives of people that have suffered through an unspeakable tragedy in an attempt to make a living, day by day, year by year, generation by generation. As the narrator of “Black Lung” confesses, “If I’d have never been down in a coal mine / (I’d have) Lived a lot longer, hell that ain’t a close call / But then again I’d a’ never had anything / And half a life is better than nothin’ at all.”