If you’ve come here today for politics, you’ll get some, just maybe not the way you expected.
Political commentary can take many forms, from a presidential tweet to a country music twang. It’s the latter that we’re dealing with today, specifically the new album by Steve Earle — “The Ghosts of West Virginia.”
It’s some good old-fashioned music — some good new-fashioned music, too — along with powerful social commentary on a place that’s not that far from us. That alone puts Earle’s new record before us for consideration. Plus, you don’t really want to read about politics or the pandemic today, do you? Good, because we didn’t want to write about that, either.
For some of you, an introduction is in order. How do we begin to introduce Steve Earle? To say he’s a country singer isn’t quite right, at least not in the way most people understand the term. Much of his music sounds country enough, all right, but you won’t find him crooning with the “hats” on country music radio. Earle hails from a sub-genre usually categorized as “alt-country,” which often means it’s country music but with some noncountry elements thrown in — rock, folk and, from time to time, liberal politics. Country music tends to be a pretty conservative genre, which is why this is “alt.”
Earle is best-known to the general public for his biggest commercial hit, which was pretty nonpolitical, as long as you consider growing marijuana up in the hollows to be nonpolitical. “Copperhead Road” isn’t even really country. It didn’t place on the country charts when it came out in 1988 but did peak at No. 10 on the rock charts and has been a classic ever since. So there’s some more “alt” for you.
Earle, though, is a lot more complicated than that one big hit. Over the years he’s mined the territory from blues to bluegrass, producing some work that’s decidedly apolitical and some that very much is. You can decide where “The Ghosts of West Virginia” fits, although we may have already given things away.
Most of the 10 songs on the album were inspired by the 2010 mine explosion at Upper Big Branch, West Virginia, that killed 29 miners and sent the company’s chief executive officer to prison for a year. The songs also provide the musical backdrop for the play “Coal Country” by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen that opened in March to rave reviews at New York’s famed Public Theater — and then was shuttered by the pandemic. Ideally, the show will re-open when New York theaters do but the album is here now and stands on its own apart from the show.
Some of the song titles reveal what’s to come — “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” and “Black Lung” are about exactly what you think they are. Here’s what Rolling Stone says about the music: “Earle handles the material with sensitivity and emotional dexterity, alternating between heartfelt mourning, righteous anger, and pious pride. On ‘Union, God and Country,’ he manages to weave the history of leftist Appalachian labor in a simple two-and-a-half-minute first-person narrative.”
The last phrase of that second sentence hits at the complicated story of the Appalachian coalfields. Today we think of that part of the country as quintessentially “Trump country,” and that’s not wrong. Trump carried every county in West Virginia in 2016 and most of them he carried by thunderous margins — taking more than 80% of the vote in seven counties, topping out at 87% in Grant County. At one time, though, West Virginia’s coalfields were the center of what today we’d consider liberalism — they were pro-union and full of immigrants who were, quite literally, trying to scratch out a living in their new country. How the coalfields — both in West Virginia and neighboring Southwest Virginia — have evolved from communities full of immigrants and union members who voted Democratic by landslide margins to communities that today vote by margins just as big for a party that is generally not fond of unions and increasingly restrictive about immigration is a fascinating story. That’s not the story Earle tells, but it’s there nonetheless.
That’s part of what makes “The Ghosts of West Virginia” so noteworthy. It’s become fashionable in some left-wing quarters to dismiss Appalachia as a hopeless backwater that is getting exactly what it deserves for voting in Trump and other Republicans. That’s a toned-down summary of comments posted on the website of the decidedly left-wing publication The Nation when it wrote about Appalachia a few years ago — and the comments we sometimes hear here at The Roanoke Times whenever we write about the coalfields. Let’s just say there’s not a lot of sympathy among some urban hipsters for their fellow citizens in Appalachia. Earle challenges that worldview head-on. Here’s a musician who proudly calls himself a socialist, and who now lives in the most un-country of places — New York City. However, he embraces West Virginia in this album with the love of a native son. (He’s not — he was born in Fort Monroe, Virginia, and grew up in Texas). He even sounds pretty authentic in doing so, which is a hard trick to pull off, although Earle has plenty of practice from years of singing other songs about mountains and mining and such. In interviews, Earle says one of the reasons he made “The Ghosts of West Virginia” was to — in the words of Rolling Stone — “bridge a political divide in making an album that spoke to people who vote differently than he does.”
Conveniently, many of the songs fit neatly into a anti-corporate mindset — such as “It’s About Blood,” where he angrily reads off the names of the 29 dead miners. But if we hadn’t told you Earle’s politics, you could probably listen to the whole album and not really know them. The people he’s singing about are pretty conservative, but also mad as hell at the company, too. They also like to run their hunting dogs and keep their shotguns handy, because those are pretty common things in much of rural America. Rolling Stone suggests that “the idea that this record will somehow transcend his well-cultivated liberal fanbase feels naive.” We’ll see. But let’s give Earle credit for trying, which is more than a lot of people on either side are willing to do these days.