May 22 on New West Records
Stephen Fain Earle, 65, of San Antonio, TX, has never feared making the Big Statement, nor giving a good goddamn what anyone thinks. In 46 years as one of America’s greatest singer-songwriters, he’s given so few fucks, you’d think he’s a punk musician. So dig his statement-of-purpose for his 17th studio album: “You can’t begin communicating with people unless you understand the texture of their lives, the realities that provide significance to their days. … I thought that, given the way things are now, it was maybe my responsibility to make a record that spoke to and for people who didn’t vote the way that I did but that doesn’t mean we don’t have anything in common. We need to learn how to communicate with each other.”
That’s huge. Steve Earle is a bigger/better man than any of us. Just log into Facebook and see all of humanity polarize themselves into corners, yelling how anyone disagreeing with them is either a “snowflake,” or a “Karen,” or “not progressive enough.” Walk into the neighborhood grocery store and get blatantly sneezed on for wearing a mask in the face of a pandemic. Perhaps this is why Earle’s attempting to bridge gaps these days — the entire modern world gives less fucks now.
His instrument for communicating across ideological lines? A concept album about one of US history’s worst mining disasters, the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion. 29 men killed. Having been born in Ft. Monroe, VA, it likely resonates greatly with Earle. The first seven of Ghosts‘ 10 stylistically varying tunes were written for and performed in Coal Country, a play about the disaster that ran at NYC’s Public Theater for two weeks beginning March 3, just before the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders went into effect. Three additional songs are included on the album. The work has morphed into a rootsy, musical white paper on King Coal, the working man, and the importance of the labor unions. One could say he even conveys how successfully our nation has trained good men to vote against their best interests, to paraphrase Gore Vidal.
Musically, the sound of the mountains pervades Ghosts like the scent of pine on a clear Spring morning. Many tracks, like “Union, God and Country” and “John Henry was a Steel Drivin’ Man,” pulse with a string band sound, not unlike a leftist Roy Acuff on a “Grand Ole Opry” broadcast fever-dreamed in your youth. Opener “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” is an a cappella, call-and-response work song, set to a beat like pickaxes striking mine walls. “Fastest Man Alive” boogies like an outtake from Earle’s early ’80s rockabilly records. Throughout, his seasoned, cracking baritone declaims his highly crafted lyrics with authority and gravitas. He’s earned his wisdom the hard way.
Is it his best record? Steve Earle’s made a lot of great records. Split the difference and call it one of his best. But he’s certainly made the Steve Earle record these fragile times need. We can learn a few things about others, and ourselves, as we listen.