Steve Earle has released an album every two or so years since getting sober in the mid-Nineties. That’s inevitably led to a mixed bag of results, from the inspired (2009’s Townes Van Zandt tribute Townes) to the less compelling (2015’s blues genre exercise Terraplane).
From a narrative standpoint, Earle’s latest record, Ghosts of West Virginia, is likely the most tightly focused and thematically driven collection of the songwriter’s career. Its inspiration was the horrific 2010 West Virginia mining explosion that killed 29 miners, and the album took shape as Earle signed on to provide music for a theater production called Coal Country.
The songs on Ghosts feel mostly like a summation of the sounds and styles Earle has made his trademark since edging away from the country marketplace and towards singer-songwriter folk in the late Nineties. “Devil Put The Coal in the Ground” and “Black Lung” are country blues romps; “Heaven Ain’t Going Nowhere” and “John Henry Was a Steel Drivin’ Man (a 21st-century rewrite on the folk standard) feel informed by pre-war traditionals; “It’s About Blood,” meanwhile, which includes a moving interlude where Earle rattles off the names of the 29 victims of the mining explosion, is storming blues-punk.
Earle handles the material with sensitivity and emotional dexterity, alternating between heartfelt mourning, righteous anger, and pious pride. On “Union God and Country,” he manages to weave the history of leftist Appalachian labor in a simple two-and-a-half-minute first-person narrative.
Earle’s main talking point for Ghosts of West Virginia is that he wanted to try to bridge a political divide in making an album that spoke to people who vote differently than he does. If anything, Earle serves here as a trusted travel guide, offering a nuanced portrayal of a time and place (21st-century Appalachian mining) that likely feels a world away for the majority of his listeners. But even if the idea that this record will somehow transcend his well-cultivated liberal fanbase feels naive, as a creative exercise Ghosts is undoubtedly a recharge for Earle, who embodies the forgotten experiences of an American tragedy with grace, poise and empathy.