Thursday, February 27, 2020
– Steve Earle & The Dukes will release "Ghosts of West Virginia" on May 22 via New West Records, Earle's 20th album.
Earle produced the 10-song set, which was engineered by Ray Kennedy at Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios in New York City. The CD was mixed entirely in mono. 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 Dukes are Chris Masterson on guitar, Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle and vocals, Ricky Ray Jackson on pedal steel, guitar and Dobro, Brad Pemberton on drums and percussion, and Jeff Hill on acoustic and electric bass.
"Ghosts of West Virginia" centers on the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed 29 men in that state in 2010, making it one of the worst mining disasters in American history. Investigations revealed hundreds of safety violations, as well as attempts to cover them up, and the mine's owners were forced to pay more than $200 million in criminal liabilities.
The first single is "Devil Put the Coal in the Ground," a song about the dangers of the mining life and the pride of doing such a demanding job in the face of danger.
Earle started working on the album after being approached by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, a playwrighting team that would create "Coal Country," a theater piece about the Upper Big Branch 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, Public Theater's Artistic Director, they workshopped the songs and text for nearly four years. Earle functions as "a Greek chorus with a guitar," in his words. He is on stage for the entire play and performs seven of the songs, including "It's About Blood," in which Earle mentions the names of all the men who died.
"The actors don't relate directly with the audience," Earle said. "I do. The actors don't realize the audience is there. I do." Currently in previews, the play opens March 3 at The Public Theater in New York City and runs through March 29.
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 said, alluding to his 2004 Grammy Award winning "The Revolution Starts...Now."
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 said. 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 said. "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."
"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 30 years, passed away. Jeff Hill, recently of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, joined the band on bass. Earle said, "Jeff stepped into the breach, but it was hard. It was really hard." The CD is dedicated to the memory of Kelley Looney and the miners.
The track list is:
1. Heaven Ain't Goin' Nowhere
2. Union, God and Country
3. Devil Put The Coal In The Ground
4. John Henry Was A Steel Drivin' Man
5. Time Is Never On Our Side
6. It's About Blood
7. If I Could See Your Face Again (featuring Eleanor Whitmore)
8. Black Lung
9. Fastest Man Alive
10. The Mine
Tour dates are:
May 10 - North Charleston, WV Culture Center Theater / NPR Mountain Stage * Solo
May 31 - Grand Prairie, TX The Theatre at Grand Prairie - The Lonestar Landfest
June 8 - Kent, OH The Kent Stage
June 9 - State College, PA State Theatre
June 10 - Phoenixville, PA Colonial Theatre
June 12 - East Greenwich, RI Greenwich Odeum
June 13 - North Turo, MA Payomet Performing Arts Center
June 14 - Riverhead, NY The Suffolk Theater
June 18 - Salisbury, MA Blue Ocean Music Hall
June 19 - Plymouth, NH Flying Monkey Performance Center
June 20 - Portland, ME Aura
July 4 - Enoch, AB River Cree Casino & Resort
July 26 - Paso Robles, CA California Mid-State Fair w/ Eric Church * Solo
Aug. 7 - Burnaby, BC Burnaby Blues & Roots Fest
Aug. 29 - Shipshewana, IN Blue Gate Theatre * Solo
Sept. 8 - 11 - Big Indian, NY Steve Earle's Camp Copperhead
Nov. 16-20 - Punta Cana, Dominican Republic All The Best Fest * Solo