Steve Earle’s new album Terraplane is being billed as his blues album. We’ll talk about that a bit more in a minute. More importantly I think – it’s a Steve Earle and the Dukes album, and a damn fine one at that. Steve Earle has had many different personas and approaches in his career, Country rock and roller, hard core troubadour, singer songwriter, bluegrass musician, political activist, you name it – but mostly I think the best name to fit him – if he even needs one – is a folk singer. And if you don’t think folk singers can play or sing the blues then you are simply not listening to enough folk music either.
This album shouldn’t be such a shock to Steve Earle fans anyway it’s not like Steve hasn’t sung the blues before. In fact if you want you can say his whole life is pretty much a blues song in and of itself (it might also make a pretty good country song too). Steve has always worn the influence of both Mance Lipscomb and Lightin’ Hopkins very loosely on his sleeve as well. On Terraplane the spirits of other Texas blues musicians such as the Vaughn brothers, Johnny Winter and Billy Gibbons, joins those influences as well.
So let’s look at the question – is this a blues album? It seems to be at the heart of the discussion on line about it already. Blues purists (whatever that means) will probably say no and point to a song like the rocker “Go Go Boots Are Back” as their evidence or maybe Acquainted with the Wind which could fit in easily in beautifully on just about any of Steve’s albums of his career and may be my favorite song on the record. One of the things it is not (thankfully) is a collection of blues covers. A story that Steve has often told in concert was that his friend and mentor Townes Van Zandt once said “There’s only two kinds of music: the blues and zippity doo-dah. Terraplane may not be blues in the in the sense that say the latest Buddy Guy or the Tedeschi –Trucks band might be, it sure as hell ain’t zippity doo-dah either. There’s a mix of acoustic blues, ragtime, boogie, rockin’ blues, dancin’ blues, swampy, dirty blues and of course a taste of psychedelic-transcendental blues as well with a little Shakespeare thrown in to the Robert Johnson story for good measure.
In the liner notes Steve says ““For my part, I’ve only ever believed two things about the blues,” he continues. “One, that they are very democratic, the commonest of human experience, perhaps the only thing that we all truly share, and two, that one day, when it was time, I would make this record. And it’s time. Hell, everybody’s sick of all my fucking happy songs anyway.”
What I love about this album the most are the Dukes. That’s not a put down to Steve, his singing or songwriting in any way. This is my favorite Steve Earle in a long time. The Dukes however manage to sound so tight and enjoyably loose at the same time. They also really smoke on some of these tunes. I’m so glad Steve used his band for this record. It would have been easy to get a who’s who of blues musicians to play along with him as everybody else seems to want to do today. But it’s sort of true to the whole “if you want to play the blues you gotta pay your dues” thing. The Dukes, comprised of longtime Dukes rhythm section Kelly Looney and Will Rigby joined by Chris Masterson on guitar and Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle and vocals. The Dukes don’t miss a beat as the songs slide from one style to another.
This may be Steve’s most personal record yet and that as any fan of Steve’s music knows is saying a lot. In a recent interview in American Songwriter magazine he was asked, “So are there any overtly political numbers on this record?” Steve replied, “I guess there’s not. That’s a good question. Nope, not really. Pretty self-centered record.”
So lets look at some of the songs, There are few that are destined to become barroom standards, maybe not for Steve but I’m guessing that there are already bands around the country covering both the opening number “Baby Baby Baby (Baby)” and “The Usual Time.” If you have any doubt that this is a blues album – the first minute and first verse of “Baby Baby Baby (Baby)” ought to change that with no problem. Again those that want to argue that this isn’t blues may look at “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy” now and “Acquainted with the Wind.” They are classic Steve Earle songs, and much like the fans who wanted Steve to stop doing “Political songs and play Copperhead Road!” maybe you just don’t get the point. “Go Go Boots are Back” may not be the blues in any way that I can see myself – buts it’s a fun rocker and the Dukes kick ass. Finally if you get to the end and are still wondering what does this all have to do with the blues? The final number – King of the blues ought to dispel any questions you might still have.
Terraplane continues the tradition of Tony Fitzpatrick cover art.
–– Rob Henry, Bethesda, Maryland USA
- Baby Baby Baby (Baby)
- You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had
- The Tennessee Kid
- Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now
- Better Off Alone
- The Usual Time
- Go Go Boots Are Back
- Acquainted With The Wind
- Baby’s Just As Mean As Me
- Gamblin’ Blues
- King Of The Blues