Ghosts of West Virginia probably percolated a while, or at least something like it must have. The actual album stems from songwriter Steve Earle’s work on the theater piece Coal Country, which includes seven of the album’s ten songs. More than reflecting his ongoing interest in musical theater, though, the disc reveals his cross-cultural empathy. Earle has long sounded country while leaning left (a position always less rare than modern stereotyping would suggest). With this Ghosts of West Virginia, he crosses a political divide, telling red-state stories in an effort to further understanding and conversation, resulting in a compelling artifact (with, of course, high quality music).

Earle’s music here focuses on the 2010 explosion in the Upper Big Branch coal mine, which killed 29 miners. The album, while built on this event, works more as a kaleidoscopic image of the place and its history than it does as a narrative. A cappella opener “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” provides the context. The gospel-based number puts Earle and the Dukes in Appalachia. We’re far from Texas; Earle’s singer-songwriter style doesn’t disappear, but it turns toward the mountains. “John Henry Was a Steel Drivin’ Man” maintains the history. Things have changed, but we’re still in a world of hard-working people eventually killed by industry.

And that tension provides one of the most interesting entrees into the album (though the song itself provides one of the weaker moments). Earle writes from the world of the Trump voters he’s working to understand, but the politics are never as easy as they seem. Earle’s particularly concerned with the role of unions in this history. The Upper Big Branch explosion happened once the unions were gone, and Earle connects the recent deaths with the decline of a culture long tied to union struggles. “Union, God and Country” makes the connection clear, drawing a quick snapshot of a region without comment, allowing Earle to push further into the struggles of the region.

That struggle revolves, naturally, around hard work and black lung (an ailment that gets its own track here). The simplest approach to the concept would have been to delineate the pressures of this lifestyle, but Earle doesn’t just sing some mountain complaints. With “It’s About Blood,” he personalizes not only the explosion but also life in the community. “It’s about fathers,” he sings. “It’s about sons.” As the Dukes push into bluesy territory, Earle develops his photo of the region. Rather than finding sides to take, he recognizes that all the politicizing and all the arguing doesn’t really matter when your livelihood is contingent upon a dangerous life underground. That sort of digging pulls up more empathy than you might expect from a New York City folk singer. Then Earle completes the track by listing the names of each of the men who died in the explosion. The straightforward song creates a complex image that suddenly becomes very personal.

After that number, Eleanor Whitmore sings a widow’s lament. The sequencing works well. The unexpected appearance of a woman’s voice brings the album from the mine to the home. “Black Lung” builds from that moment. The miners know that their work will shorten their lives, but going down the mineshaft offers them their best opportunity for a good life in the region (even if they don’t get their full allotment). “The Mine” ends the album with troubled optimism based on the financial prospects of mining life.

The disc contains plenty of strong individual songs, but in whole in offers history, contemporary context and an accessible but never simplistic view of a region that a songwriter like Earle might have passed over. Appalachia remains an area often misunderstood or reductively explained, so his efforts stand as an important part of the broadening public discourse about the region happening these days. That Earle has done his work with such skill and empathy doesn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with his previous recordings, but it does make the record an engaging piece of art and not just a conversation piece.

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