Steve Earle & The Dukes
Ghosts Of West Virginia
New West Records
The first sound you hear on Steve Earle’s new album is his solo voice, all gravel and grit as he leads a group chant which sits somewhere between the church and the railroad. It sets the scene magnificently for an album of songs composed for a play that centres around the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed twenty-nine men in West Virginia in 2010.
Recorded and mixed in mono, the album is one of Earle’s most concise albums of the last decade, with an economy in sound and songwriting that gives it a directness and immediacy. It’s folk music at its core, with a country twang and a bluegrass vivacity. The playing from The Dukes is superb throughout as Earle paints an unfettered picture of the life and death of the miners and the residual emotional tsunami that swept through the community. ‘If I Could See Your Face Again’, sung by Eleanor Whitmore from the perspective of one of the widows is a touching and personal moment, while ‘Black Lung’ is a rough blues workout, ‘Fastest Man Alive’ is a Dylan-esque lyrically-dense thrill ride and The Mine is Earle sounding like his son Justin.
The real ace of Ghosts Of West Virginia is that Earle is not only singing of the events and repercussions, the music he’s written conjures up vivid images of the dirt, dust, sweat and tears at the core of the tragedy.