Beneath the veneer of his country-rock stylings, the early work of Steve Earle is shot through with moving descriptions of working-class life. His stirring debut album from 1986, Guitar Town, is haunted by characters hopelessly mired in small-town and rural America, barely scraping by in landscapes that are as bleak spiritually as they are impoverished. On the title track, Earle writes about his own life, with a deft nod to Hank Williams: “Nothin’ ever happened ‘round my hometown/And I ain’t the kind to just hang around/But I heard somethin’ callin’ my name one day/And I followed that voice down a lost highway.” It’s a nod, of course, to Williams’ classic “Lost Highway,” a song written by Leon Payne.
This image of small-town life and the urgency to leave it behind is as blue-collar as it is timeless Americana. But Earle’s characters are not so much conquered by fate as embattled by the forces of culture and economics — and he returns to these subjects for his latest project, Ghosts of West Virginia, out Friday. In these early works, there is the distance between aspiration and reality, and it is here where the struggle to survive with some semblance of meaning intact is maintained. On the song “Someday,” a Springsteen-esque anthem from Guitar Town, Earle relates the tale of a young man who pumps gas by the interstate yet yearns to know “what’s over that rainbow.” In “No. 29,” a tune from Earle’s sophomore album Exit O, a middle-aged man is sustained by little more than his glory days on the gridiron, which he relives every Friday night when he watches the town’s star tailback, wearing the narrator’s old jersey number, play at the local high school. Early Steve Earle was country music, all right: songs about the frustrated working man and the tender mercies that keep him going through hard times. But in Earle’s case, it is country music written by someone who knows the city just as well.
On “Copperhead Road,” the title track of Earle’s harder-rocking third album, a Vietnam veteran living in the Scotch-Irish country of East Tennessee, perhaps suffering from the effects of PTSD, follows in the outlaw footsteps of his bootlegging grandfather and takes to growing marijuana before being pursued by the DEA. The song’s protagonist, John Lee Pettimore, volunteered for the Army at 18 because they “draft the white-trash first round here anyway.” It’s a genuine hillbilly elegy, ferocious in scope and dashed with an apocalyptic tinge.
After making one more album in the early Nineties, The Hard Way, Earle was sidelined for about four years — both professionally and personally, due to a spiraling drug addiction, a resultant jail sentence, and a stint in rehab — before re-emerging with a stellar stream of records that spanned the American roots-music spectrum. The social and political songs of this period were more in the lefty, protest vein of folk masters like Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, and early Bob Dylan. On “Christmas in Washington,” a song from the 1997 album El Corazón, Earle summons the ghost of Guthrie in the chorus, singing, “The unions have been busted, their proud red banners torn/To listen to the radio you’d think that all was well/But you and me and Cisco know, it’s going straight to hell.”
The nature of the music of this period in Earle’s career was geared more for NPR listeners and Michael Moore fans than for traditional country-music audiences, who have always had an allergy to anything overtly political. But in 1999, Earle released The Mountain, a bluegrass album he cut with the Del McCoury Band, exemplary practitioners of that genre. Several of the songs (“Harlan Man,” “Graveyard Shift”) pay tribute to the mining life, while the title track, a poignant ballad and one of the best songs Earle has ever written, mourns the lasting ecological damage wrought by strip mining.
Earle’s 2001 album, Jerusalem, penned in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, featured the most polarizing song in his canon, “John Walker’s Blues,” a Revolver-sounding number that was written from the perspective of John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban.” That was followed with The Revolution Starts Now in 2004, timed to coincide with the Bush-Kerry presidential election. That song cycle decried the American adventure in Iraq and featured the standout track “Rich Man’s War,” in which Earle sang, “I’m just another poor boy, off to fight a rich man’s war.” Earle said at the time that he had a political agenda, and he was unapologetic about showing it.
Sixteen years and many albums later, Earle returns with Ghosts of West Virginia. The album was written in conjunction with the off-Broadway play Coal Country, which honors the lives of the 29 West Virginia miners that were killed in the explosion of the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010, one of the worst mining disasters in American history. An investigation into the explosion revealed innumerable safety violations and an attempted cover-up, which resulted in a $209 million settlement with the Justice Department. Coal Country was written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, who spent years interviewing miners who had survived the explosion, as well as family members of the victims. Earle also spent time in West Virginia and wrote seven songs for the play, even performing the tunes live onstage (functioning as a sort of “Greek chorus with a guitar,” he says) before the project was shuttered two weeks after opening night due to concerns over COVID-19. The record functions as a suite mate to the play.
“For Ghosts of West Virginia, Earle wanted to speak in the voice of a segment of the population that leans in a different political direction than he does.”
In recent interviews, Earle has posited that the American political left lost touch with the working class somewhere along the way, a fact that helped facilitate the election of Donald Trump as president, he says. He sees the expanding political divide, and our inability to communicate with the person across the aisle, as perhaps the greatest crisis in the republic. So for Ghosts of West Virginia, Earle wanted to speak in the voice of a segment of the population that leans in a different political direction than he does, and with legitimate reason to do so.
“I thought that given the way things are now, it was maybe my responsibility to make a record that spoke to and for people who didn’t vote the way that I did,” Earle says in a press statement that accompanies the album. “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. So this is one move toward something that might take a generation to change. I wanted to do something where that dialogue could begin. I said I wanted to speak to people that didn’t necessarily vote the way that I did, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have anything in common. We need to learn how to communicate with each other. My involvement in this project is my little contribution to that effort. And the way to do that — and to do it impeccably — is simply to honor those guys who died at Upper Big Branch.”
Earle recorded the 10 songs that make up Ghosts of West Virginia with his longtime band the Dukes. Musically, the album features everything from hard Appalachian folk (in the spirit of the Harry Smith anthology) to delicate country ballads and Sixties coffeehouse-sounding numbers.
“Union, God And Country,” which sounds like it could have been written in the Thirties, invokes the rallying cry of the miners of yore. The arresting “It’s About Blood” concerns the traumatic aftermath of the explosion for the families and testifies to mining’s generational hold in West Virginia. “It’s about fathers/It’s about sons/It’s about lovers waking up in the middle of the night, all alone,” Earle sings, later adding, “Once upon a time in America, a working man knew where he stood/ Nowadays just getting by is a miracle/Probably couldn’t give it up if I could/None of that matters when you’re underground anyway/Damn sure can’t tell me nothing about cost.” As the song nears its end, Earle shouts the names of the actual miners who were all killed in the explosion. It’s a riveting moment.
Another song from Ghosts, “John Henry Was a Steel Driving Man,” is part of a long tradition of songs about the titular folk hero (and also the name of Earle’s youngest son), and establishes Henry as a forerunner to the union movement in West Virginia. “Black Lung” tells the story of one of the greatest foes of the miner, while “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” is a searing banjo number delivered in modal tuning. “If I Could See Your Face Again,” which comes at the album’s midpoint, is the grand weeper of the lot, written from the perspective of the wife of one of the miners killed, who, while looking out over the valley at close of day, imagines another day with her departed. “Maybe we could find a town/Where dreams aren’t buried underground/And not so many ghosts around to haunt us,” Earle sings.
But it’s the album’s closing track, a song simply titled “The Mine,” where Earle’s brilliance as a songwriter shines most brightly. While not mentioning it by name, the song addresses the opioid crisis that is ravaging much of the country, especially in states like West Virginia, which had the highest death rate in the U.S. for drug overdoses in 2019, according to the CDC.
“The Mine” tells the story of an out-of-work West Virginian whose brother works at the local mine and drives a brand-new Dodge Ram truck with satellite radio. The narrator’s last hope for himself and his lover, who is also an addict, is that he “gets himself together” and is able to get a job at the mine if his brother can “pull some strings.” Here, there is not the thought of escape, because he knows by instinct that he’s never leaving West Virginia. “When you live here all your life, you kind of get the mountains in you/Ain’t no way you’re getting them out,” Earle sings.
“You can’t begin communicating with people unless you understand the texture of their lives, the realities that provide significance to their days,” Earle said. “That is the entire point of Ghosts of West Virginia.” His point here is not mere artistic sentiment, but the articulation of a political and social necessity in the current moment. Albert Maysles, the documentary filmmaker who gave us Gimme Shelter, said much the same when he observed that “tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance.” Like the best of Earle’s early work, Ghosts of West Virginia is an album that gets the details right.