Tuesday, July 21, 2020

CD Odyssey Disc 1389: Steve Earle

I spent some of my free time going through Paste Magazine’s “Top 25 albums of 1980. It is fair to say I disagreed with a lot of the choices, but I did find five new albums that I hadn’t previously heard and really enjoyed. If you’re interested in finding some new music from forty years ago, these are worth your time:
  • Prince, “Dirty Mind”
  • Devo, “Freedom of Choice”
  • Pylons, “Gyrate”
  • The Cramps, “Songs the Lord Taught Us”
Disc 1389 is…. Ghosts of West Virginia
Artist: Steve Earle

Year of Release: 2020

What’s up with the Cover? Welcome back, Tony Fitzpatrick. I did not miss you. This cover appears to be an homage to all the people lost in mining accidents in West Virginia. Which is an important and affecting topic. I only wish I wasn’t so profoundly uninspired by Fitzpatrick’s painting style.   

How I Came To Know It: There was a time when I would just buy Steve Earle albums as they came out, but I’ve become more wary in recent years. When this one came out I gave it a listen on Youtube first and realized it was time to rejoin the ranks of the believers.

How It Stacks Up: I have 16 studio albums by Steve Earle (not counting his collaborations, nor his homages to Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt). Of those 16, I put “Ghosts of West Virginia” at #10. Since this once again concludes my full Steve Earle collection, here’s an updated recap:

  1. I Feel Alright: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 14)
  2. Exit 0: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 423)
  3. Guitar Town: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 616)
  4. El Corazon:  4 stars (reviewed at Disc 395)
  5. Jerusalem: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 1153)
  6. Copperhead Road: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 398)
  7. Train A Comin’:  4 stars (reviewed at Disc 127)
  8. The Revolution Starts Now: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 359)
  9. Sidetracks: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 851)
  10. Ghosts of West Virginia: 4 stars (reviewed right here)
  11. I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 718)
  12. The Low Highway: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 633)
  13. The Hard Way: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 179)
  14. Washington Square Serenade: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 226)
  15. The Mountain: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 332)
  16. Transcendental Blues: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 438)
  17. Terraplane: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 980)
Ratings: 4 stars

“Ghosts of West Virginia” is Steve Earle’s best album in a decade. It is the kind of record I’ve been waiting on (sometimes impatiently) through underwhelming efforts like “Terraplane” and “So You Wanna Be An Outlaw”. With “Ghosts…” Earle reminds us that even if an aging artist doesn’t knock you off your feet every time, they still have a few good swings left in them, and you should keep giving them a chance to let one land.

Turns out all it took was a return to subject matter that never fails to inspire Earle; blue collar heroes struggling to carve out a life of honour for themselves and their families. In the case of “Ghosts of West Virginia,” it is about coal miners for the most part. Seven of the ten songs are about coal mining, and together form the bulk of the album. They are also featured in the stage play “Coal Country” about the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine that claimed the lives of 29 workers. If you think that having so many songs about a single topic (coal mining) would get tiresome, you’d be wrong. Instead you get a deep, multifaceted look at the lives and history of the people who work in some of the most dangerous conditions of any job in North America.

In delivering their stories, Earle draws on multiple influences he’s picked up over the years. The result is a mix of the manic rock-country vitriol Earle displayed on Jerusalem, sitting alongside the homespun mountain heartbreak of “The Mountain” (which Earle recorded alongside the Del McCoury bluegrass band. The two styles sit easily with one another, each complementing the other and adding to the record’s dynamics.

There’s no Del McCoury this time, but Earle is joined by the most recent incarnation of the Dukes, who are accomplished players equally adept at anger and tenderness, as the individual song demands. An extra shout-out to Eleanor Whitmore, who not only plays some energetic fiddle, but takes lead vocals on “If I Could See Your Face Again,” a song about a woman mourning the loss of her man that will be sure to put a coal-sized lump in your throat.

Sometimes Earle takes a wider lens, such as on “Union, God and Country” where he paints a picture of mining life through time, and sometimes he gets personal and visceral, as he does on “It’s About Blood” which ends with Earle naming the victims of the Upper Big Branch disaster.

My favourite song on the record is the last one. “The Mine” is a story anyone who has grown up in a resource town knows; the allure of the big money offered by a company job. In Earle’s version a young man is excited at the prospect of all the money he’s going to spend now that his brother has got him a position at the local mine:

“Well, my brother drives a brand new Ram truck with a hemi
And a satellite radio too
Well, I reckon, that’s the first thing I’m a gonna get me
And a baby blue Camaro for you.”

Hell, even I want that Camaro, but coming as the song does after songs about black lung, dead miners, lost jobs, and mourning widows you hear the narrator’s excitement with considerably more circumspection. The work is good, but it is also risky, and the song may sound relatively carefree on the surface, but Earle is clearly honouring the inherent bravery of the people who live a large part of their life down below it.

Best tracks: Union God and Country, Devil Put the Coal in the Ground, Time Is Never On Our Side, It’s About Blood, If I Could See Your Face Again, The Mine

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