In April 2010, an explosion at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch coal mine killed 29 men, setting in motion a corporate criminal liability trial, and also this heartfelt concept album from Steve Earle.
Seasoned storyteller that he is, Earle doesn’t throw us straight into the tragedy. Union, God & Country, for example, is an irrepressible fiddle-decorated hoedown, capturing the pride of young miners walking in their forefathers’ footsteps.
Such moments of sweetness make it more powerful when Earle cranks his amp for the frayed protest rocker It’s About Blood, which ends with each dead miner’s name bellowed in turn.
But perhaps life is harder still for those left behind, like the widow on country ballad If I Could See Your Face Again, or the veteran dying of respiratory illness in Black Lung.
Even if Earle occasionally falls back on roots-music autopilot, the power of this work is undeniable.