Steve Earle is to American country music what Bull Dog No. 3 steel wool is to nail files. The roughness of the music and raucity of voice (Steve sings more and more like a bronchitic bear), then lyrics and commitment that are anything but conservative. Here’s Steve Earle, the “hardcore troubadour” who’s been working for 40 years to build a cathedral within Americana. A kind of Sagrada Familia, in fact, because when Steve Earle passes away, his son Justin Townes and other talented emulators will continue his noble and ineffable work: the musical quest for greater social justice.
Mr. Earle presents his twentieth studio album, counting those he made with the Del McCoury Band and Shawn Colvin. Ghosts of West Virginia includes 10 songs, seven of which were written for the play Coal Country by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. Presented off-Broadway in March of this year, it’s about the 2010 tragedy at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, where 29 miners lost their lives. Earle names them one by one at the end of “It’s About Blood”.
Earle and his Dukes, a quintet torn from Appalachian musical soil, open this short album (30 minutes) in gospel mode with “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”. Everything was composed by Steve, except “John Henry was a Steel Drivin’ Man”, a folk standard dynamically upgraded here. Earle raises his legendary empathy for the underprivileged, the marginalized, and the exploited by a tick. “Black Lung” almost synthesizes Emile Zola’s Germinal in three minutes. The emotion culminates when violinist Eleanor Whitmore sings the distress of a miner’s widow on “If I Could See Your Face Again”.
One wonders if Earle is squaring the circle, taking sides with those who probably don’t care much about his ideas and positions. Meanwhile, the doors of his cathedral of Americana remain open to all.