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Steve Earle & The Dukes

Ghosts of West Virginia – 2020 (New West)

Reviewed by Greg Yost

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CDs by Steve Earle & The Dukes

In a time when political views are pushing us further apart as a society, Steve Earle is one of the few artists reaching across that divide to seek common ground. In the case of his album, "Ghosts of West Virginia," Earle finds that common ground in the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining explosion that took the live of 29 miners in West Virginia, a state generally separated from Earle's political leanings by a divide larger than the massive Appalachian Mountain Range that defines the region.

According to Earle, this project started when documentary playwrights approached him about providing both songs and music for their theatrical production about that mining tragedy. The first seven tracks on "Ghosts of West Virginia" are the songs he wrote for "Coal Country," which are joined on this set by three thematically similar songs not directly about the explosion.

Rather than focusing on the company found responsible for the explosion or the larger coal industry, Earle seeks to understand the human side of the tragedy, and he does so by approaching it from all sides.

"Union, God and Country" sets the narrative by exploring the region's coal mining culture - one in which sons are seemingly born to follow in their fathers' footsteps to the mine, just as they did previously with their own dads. On "The Mine," Earle delves further into the culture, this time through the lens of a relationship hanging on by a thread thanks to the prospect of a mining job. It's not hard to imagine this as a Springsteen tune if he was from Appalachia instead of New Jersey.

Both "Time is Never on Our Side" and "If I Could See Your Face Again," are meditations on mortality. The latter, featuring lovely lead vocals by Eleanor Whitmore, offers a small glimpse at the loss and longing left in the wake of a tragic event.

Ultimately, "Ghosts of West Virginia" is both a compelling concept album - one with plenty of emotional heft - and a fantastic collection of songs.