A deeper look at the grooves pressed into the Ghosts of West Virginia LP by Steve Earle and The Dukes.
I confess that – for a variety of reasons, many of which are not rooted in rational or critical thinking – I have never really given Steve Earle a whole lot of my time. Some of that has to do with the politics and soapboxes, but suffice it to say that it has just never happened; I’ve never walked up or gotten lost on “Copperhead Road” and never really felt like I was missing anything.
At least, I’ve never felt like I might have missed something before I heard Ghosts of West Virginia – Steve Earle’s twentieth studio album (released on May 21, 2021 – but I discovered it much more recently than that). With this release, Steve Earle allows control of the songs to be guided by other musicians, occasionally (read: there are a couple of guest singers who contribute their time), but focus never wavers. Even better too, new listeners are left in awe, longtime critics are left humbled and Steve Earle fans get left feeling that their taste and support of the singer is justified.
From the moment needle catches groove and “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” opens the A-side of Ghost of West Virginia, listeners will know they’re in for something different and they’ll want to know where the sound is headed, once it starts. There, Earle allows every crackle collected during his decades spent on the road ring out as he calls out boldly (check out the warning in lines like, “Perilous crossin’ to the other side”) and hears a multi-voiced chorus call back, “Heaven ain’t going nowhere.” The result is truly and genuinely chilling; with no instruments ANYWHERE in the mix, no voice or mild imperfection of it is allowed to hide, and the field recording vibe of it is disarming, exhilarating and intoxicating for the right ears. For those ears, what Earle is rolling out is remarkable and brave and, when the song ends after its minute-and-a-half runtime, listeners may not know what they’ve just heard but they’ll know their appetites have been whetted for more. “Union, God and Country” follows with a lush country-folk backdrop before which Earle lays out a country gem which includes standard finery (see lines like, “My daddy was a minor/ My dadd’s daddy too/ Union, God and country was all they ever knew/ They worked from early morning ’til the evening whistle blew/ And they’d strike the mine and walk the line/ ‘Cause that’s just what you do”) and genuine, roots sensibilities.
Not one to ease off the throttle, Earle and his crew dig in and strike upon something truly phenomenal between the grit in Earle’s throat, the stomp of the drums and the tight pluck of the strings which characterizes “The Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” (which is an undeniable standout on the album) before getting genuinely old-timey with a fiddle’s help in “John Henry was a Steel Driving Man”and then recognizing how short our time really is (but discovering a much more tender vocal timbre in so doing) on “Time is Never on our Side,” which closes the side. The warmth with which that cut is delivered proves to be infectious and finds listeners hanging on every word, and reveals a romantic side which (as has also proven to be true of Bob Dylan on occasion, over the years) is not often associated with Steve Earle’s songbook. There’s a crack in the singer’s voice here which is capable of hooking listeners HARD and makes those who hear it want to believe that Earle is THAT CLOSE to tears. The open door that such an emotional presentation leaves is what will have listeners flipping the record over hurriedly for more, as soon as the proverbial needle lifts.
As soft as the A-side ends, the B-side opens with a far more confrontational bent as Steve Earle reveals a confusion and discomfort at being among the class who don’t know where they stand in the United States, and have no sense of certainty in the twenty-first century through “It’s About Blood” (check out the clip in Earle’s voice as he delivers lines like, “Look me in the eye when you’re talking to me/ Wanna see your soul when you lie/ Don’t try to tell me you couldn’t foresee/ What everybody reckoned was a matter of time/ God damn right I’m emotional/ I ain’t nothin’ but a man/ Hell yes, this is personal/ Before we leave you’re gonna understand.”) and then just handing the mic to Mastersons singer Eleanor Whitmore for easily the romantic centrepiece of the album, “If I Could See Your Face Again” (which is just beautiful enough to be a great, unexpected wedding song for 2020 – provided that this logistically complicated year needs such a thing).
With hearts left softened by “If I Could See Your Face Again,” it’ll prove easy for “Black Lung” and the growl with which Steve Earle delivers the song to conquer listeners all over again. There, while the song itself remains firmly entrenched in the country-folk paradigm, the age which has affected Earle’s vocal takes the song to a very different place. Earle’s vocal rasp makes the song raucous and that can hook any punk looking for a fight – or a soundtrack to start one. After that, Earle and The Dukes edge a little closer to “La Grange” territory with the roadhouse country rock of “Fastest Man Alive” before folding into “The Mine” with a rasp and a rattle – which closes both the side and the album.
While it might not have been intentional, “The Mine” really does illustrate closure and an end point for Ghosts of West Virginia. With nine songs having already played out, Steve Earle’s pace is laden and his voice is even rougher than it was elsewhere throughout the album’s running. He’s spent here, but croaks out “The Mine” and the heartbreak of lines like “Well I woke up with an aching/ Way on down in my bones/ Wasn’t nothing else I could do/ Took your wedding ring/ To West Virginia Jewelry and Loan/ Pawned it for a cure for a blues/ But hey babe, I saved you some/ It’s okay babe, ’cause it won’t be long” before finally closing up shop. Some critics might call the close that “The Mine” gives to the side and the album as a whole a soft option, but it feels incredibly cathartic to this critic; there was really only one way out of this running which wouldn’t make most listeners scoff (whether they want to admit it or not), and Steve Earle and The Dukes found it here.
After having run front-to-back with Ghosts of West Virginia, I can say confidently that my critical ear to Steve Earle’s music has been overturned. While other albums in the singer’s catalogue seemed trite and/or overwrought to me, Ghosts of West Virginia balances style and substance as well as ambition and heart, and is capable of winning over even the most rigid critic. Twenty albums in, Steve Earle as proven that he still has some things to say – in spite of having already been so outspoken for so long.