Steve Earle is a songwriter with a gift for telling stories with his lyrics, and he's also a leftist populist who likes to sing of the lives and challenges of working people and how they often struggle against an economic system not meant to favor them. Once upon a time, that wasn't an unlikely combination for someone working in folk or country music, yet in an era where "country" is mostly a lifestyle brand and "folk" means just about anyone who plays an acoustic guitar rather than an electric, that makes him somewhat more unusual. Given his talents and inclinations, Earle was the ideal choice to write songs for Coal Country, a play written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen about the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, in which 27 West Virginia coal miners lost their lives in 2010. There is a certain irony that Earle created a song cycle about the real costs of being a blue-collar worker in America in the 21st century for an off-Broadway play staged by New York's Public Theater, where the majority of people who lead the lives he's singing about will never see it. That said, that does nothing to change the emotional power and honesty of Earle's songs, and thankfully they can be heard outside of the context of the show on his 2020 album Ghosts of West Virginia, with Earle joined by his road band the Dukes.
The record doesn't explicitly tell the story of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster; instead, the lives of the men who work the coal mines and the many ways the legacy and dangers of their job define their existence shapes these songs, and the arc of the individual numbers coheres into an effective larger tale. From the working man's spiritual of "Heaven Ain't Goin' Nowhere" and the holy trinity of "Union, God and Country" to the defiant pride that comes from dangerous work in "Black Lung" and the outrage and betrayal of "It's About Blood," Earle's songs bear the tough ring of truth. The muscular blend of bluegrass, country, and rock summoned by the Dukes -- guitarist Chris Masterson, pedal steel player Ricky Jay Jackson, fiddler Eleanor Whitmore, bassist Jeff Hill, and drummer Brad Pemberton joining Earle on guitar and banjo -- gives the music vivid, forceful, and unsentimental life. Country radio probably doesn't have a place for music this raw and direct in the year 2020. That hasn't stopped Earle from trying to make music that reaches out to the working-class audience whose stories aren't much heard in the mass media, and with Ghosts of West Virginia, he's created some of the most eloquent music he's written in two decades.