Steve Earle & The Dukes new album, Ghosts of West Virginia, is a theatrical recollection of a fatal mining disaster that killed 29 men in 2010. An outspoken liberal and leftist thinker, Earle attempted to step away from the echo chamber and make an album that would bridge the political divide in America.
The album came about from Earle’s involvement in a documentary theatre play called Coal Country, which detailed how West Virginia families of the miners were affected by the Upper Big Branch mine explosion.
“It was considered a plus to have somebody who talks like me to travel with them to West Virginia to do the interviews, so that’s what we did,” says Earle, in his rugged and rural Appalachian accent. He began writing songs while on the road, based on the script and the role he played in the production.
“Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” is a testimony of a miner’s bleak outlook on life, and the threat of mortality that one must face in order to work. Earle also recalls the story of seeing the song come to fruition from the stage to the studio and the real life reflections on the subject matter.
“It’s About Blood” coincides with the climax of the play and celebrates the everyday struggles of the Average Joe. “It’s about Carl Acord and Jason Atkins, Christopher Bell…” Earle sings as he lists the 29 dead victims of the disaster, growing angrier with each name.
“A lot of the trouble we’re in is because of the divisions between us and what we think we don’t have in common and people that are very powerful trading on that. And I wanted to make a record that spoke to people that didn’t vote the way that I did.”
With “Union, God and Country” Earle conveys the culture of coal mining in West Virginia and the relationship formed between members of the extended mining family. In making an album so ultra-focused on an aspect of life that many of his listeners may not be familiar with, Earle invokes his songwriting and storytelling abilities to create a cohesive body of work that so poignantly captures the issues currently facing the working class in this country.