There are few figures in country music as inherently cool as Steve Earle. An influence on many younger country and Americana artists both musically and politically, the alt country legend has made a career out of doing things his own way, everything else be damned. In that spirit, instead of making what he would call a "preaching to the choir album,” amid the extreme political tensions of 2020, he chose to release a record for people who likely didn’t vote the way he did, seeking to use his music to unite us and focus on our common ground. Earle made an album for the twenty-nine miners who lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in 2010 because of a coal company’s carelessness and disregard for their safety, and for the families who must wake up without their loved ones every day. Ghosts of West Virginia is a loving ode to that state and to its people, as well as a cry for justice from those forgotten miners and their families.
The album paints a somber picture of Appalachian life right from the opening song, “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” At once futile and hopeful, this song highlights the duality of feeling defeated and forgotten in this world while also looking forward to heaven with hope and joy. It’s a reminder that nothing in this life is certain and that we can’t take any of it with us when we die, either the happiness or the sorrow we found on earth.
The struggle between hope and hopelessness continues throughout the record. They exist side by side and simultaneously. “Time is Never on our Side” is similar to the opener, but this one focuses more on the riddle that is time; it can fly or crawl, and as every moment passes by, we have less of it. The grandfather in “Black Lung” reflects that he knew the day of his first shift in a coal mine that this would be his fate someday, yet in the next breath he declares that "half a life is better than nothing at all,” saying that he wouldn’t have been able to make it without becoming a miner all those years ago. Mining is presented as the only viable option, the lesser of the evils when the other choice is a lifetime of financial hardship and struggling to survive.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the album closer, “The Mine,” where the narrator is trying to console his partner by saying that things will get better when his brother pulls some strings at the mine where he works and gets this man hired. Upon first listen, it may seem like the album climax comes in “It’s About Blood,” where Steve Earle’s anger is on display in full force as he rails against the coal companies that can so callously allow these things to happen and then call it an accident, and certainly his fury is infectious as the song culminates in the naming of all twenty-nine miners who gave their lives that fateful day. But it’s really here in the quiet end to the record where the most sobering reality lies, that despite lungs full of coal dust and the possibility of disaster, working in the mines is still the dream for this West Virginian, still the only form of hope in this life. This narrator says that if he were going to try and make a life outside the state, he probably would have by now, but he can’t leave the mountains he has loved since he was a child. So he will stay in West Virginia and hope for the day when things will get better, when he will go to work in the mine and be able to provide a better life for his family.
With Ghosts of West Virginia, Steve Earle has made an outstanding, timeless tribute to the people of Appalachia. This is not only a record for the miners who lost their lives at the Upper Big Branch mine but also for the living miners who toil underground each day, for the men who gave their best years to a coal company in exchange for enough money to get by and permanent damage to their lungs, and for all of the forgotten people of West Virginia who find little joy in this world and seek their rest in the hereafter. The album captures all the beauty of this land right along with all of the harshness and hardship, and Steve Earle’s love for this place and these people shines brightly throughout. This will be one of the finest records of 2020 and one of the greatest albums in Steve Earle’s storied discography.