Steve Earle & The Dukes | Ghosts Of West Virginia
Indies-only blue & gold West Virginia vinyl
Steve Earle & The Dukes release Ghosts of West Virginia on New West Records. The album was produced by Steve Earle and engineered by Ray Kennedy at Jimi Hendrix’s legendary Electric Lady Studios in New York City. The 10-song set is Earle’s 20th studio album and was mixed entirely in mono, lending a sonic cohesion and punch. In recent years, Earle has experienced partial hearing loss in one ear and can no longer discern the separation that stereo is designed to produce. The recording features his latest incarnation of his backing band The Dukes; Chris Masterson on guitar, Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle & vocals, Ricky Ray Jackson on pedal steel, guitar & dobro, Brad Pemberton on drums & percussion, and Jeff Hill on acoustic & electric bass.
Ghosts of West Virginia centers on the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed twenty-nine men in that state in 2010, making it one of the worst mining disasters in American history. Earle started working on the album after being approached by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, a playwright team that would create Coal Country, a theater piece about the disaster. They interviewed the surviving West Virginia miners, along with the families of the miners who died, and created monologues for their characters using those words. Working closely with Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater’s Artistic Director, they workshopped the songs and text for nearly four years. Earle functioned as “a Greek chorus with a guitar,” in his words. He was on stage for the entire play and performed seven of the songs that lead Ghosts of West Virginia, including the powerful “It’s About Blood,” in which Earle blazons the names of all the men who died. The songs provided personal, historical and social context for the testimony of the play’s characters. Opening to critical acclaim on March 3rd, the production was postponed indefinitely after only two weeks due to restrictions and safety concerns because of COVID-19.
In ten deftly drawn, powerfully conveyed sonic portraits, Earle explores the historical role of coal in rural communities. With Ghosts of West Virginia, Earle says that he was interested in exploring a new approach to his songwriting. “I’ve already made the preaching-to-the-choir album,” he says, specifically alluding to his 2004 Grammy Award winning The Revolution Starts...Now. As anyone politically attuned as Earle understands, there are times when the faithful need music that will raise their spirits and toughen their resolve. But he came to believe that our times might also benefit from something that addresses a different audience, songs written from a point of view that he is particularly capable of rendering.
To be sure, Earle’s politics have not changed. He believes in sustainable energy sources and ending fossil fuels. “But that doesn’t mean a thing in West Virginia,” he says. You can’t begin communicating with people unless you understand the texture of their lives, the realities that provide significance to their days. That is the entire point of Ghosts of West Virginia. “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,” he says. “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.” He adds, “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.”
Steve Earle & The Dukes suffered a major loss when, not long before the band went into the studio, bassist Kelley Looney, who had played with Earle for thirty years, passed away. Beyond the death of a longstanding musical partner, Earle was faced with the prospect of finding someone who could share the telepathic musical communication so characteristic of the band. Happily, Jeff Hill, recently of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, joined the band on bass. “Earle says, “Jeff stepped into the breach, but it was hard. It was really hard.” In addition to the 29 miners killed at Upper Big Branch, Ghosts of West Virginia is dedicated to the memory of Kelley Looney