on April 16, 2013
As I rolled on down the low highway.
So sings Steve Earle in Low Highway (the song), painting a picture of tumbleweed and dust in millennial America.
Saw empty houses on dead end streets
People linin' up for somethin' to eat
And the ghost of America watchin' me
Through the broken windows of the factories
It's a raw picture and a bleak one that grabs you and won't let go. As far as I'm concerned this album's gotta be some of Steve's best work, right up there with El Corazon, Copperhead Road, and Jerusalem...
He goes on,
Met a man with a rifle in his hand
Been away to battle in a distant land
Taught him how to hate and taught him how to kill
Now he's out on the road with a hole to fill
Next up, Calico County presents a chillingly evocative portrayal of the strung out world of a meth amphetamine junkie...
Born in a double wide out behind the county dump
Mama never told me why daddy didn't live with us
Only picture I had he's climbin' on a prison bus
Stencil on his back said Calico County
And then, Burnin' It Down, about a guy in a pick up truck, contemplating fire bombing the local Wal Mart. This scary image is wrapped in a bittersweet melody as the would be arsonist laments, "Now I'm getting old no place else to go / And it's all come unwound".
Steve's band is exceedingly tight as testifies to the time they've spent touring together on the road. The music moves seamlessly from folk to country to rock to blues and back to bluegrass and doesn't miss a beat. In so doing, it fleshes out the portrait of America that's established in the lyrics. Elanor Whitmore's fiddle is particularly haunting, and at times will almost make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
After this incredibly dark and desolate journey 21st Century Blues (the second to last song on the CD) deadpans, "It ain't the future that Kennedy promised me / In the 21st century".
But amazingly, Steve manages to wrap the whole thing up on a positive (if somewhat sentimental) note in Remember Me, written to his four year old son:
But there'll come a day when you're all alone
And you'll have to stand up on your own
And when it's muscle and blood and bone
Steve Earle & The Dukes & Duchesses
"The Low Highway"
(New West, 2013)
One of the founding fathers of the Americana music scene, Steve Earle has this amazing knack for producing one record after another where I hear it and go, Oh man, that's his best one ever! These days he's really on a roll: his 2008 Townes Van Zandt tribute was beautiful and complex, while 2011's "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive" was even more searching and richly textured. And now... Steve Earle's recorded his best record ever... again!
The album kicks off with the bouncy, bluegrassy title track, a twangy acoustic echo of Woody Guthrie giving way to a windswept landscape of soft fiddle and pedal steel. From there, Earle leaps into crunchy, grungy electric guitar rock on "Calico County," the catchiest power-pop song about cooking meth you're likely to hear all year. As the album progresses, each track takes on its own unique feel, and each one is equally alluring. Backing him is his tour band, the The Dukes & Duchesses, which includes Earle's wife, Alison Moorer, who adds some nice harmonies. Earle's rumbling, soulful vocals may remind many listeners of the legendary Dr. John, while a strong counterpoint is provided by the excellent fiddle work that laces through the record. The loose, inventive improvisations reminded of the fluid performances of actor/violinist Lucia Micarelli who co-starred with Earle on HBO's Treme tv series: sure enough this album includes three songs that Earle and Micarelli co-wrote for the series, although it's duchess Eleanor Whitmore who bends the bow on this album... and man, is she good! An excellent record, the kind you'll find yourself cycling through time after time, soaking up a a variety of melancholy moods, with melodies that can echo in your head for hours. Highly recommended. (DJ Joe Sixpack, Slipcue Guide To Country Music)
on April 16, 2013
The head of a New York-based arts organization recently asked me to suggest a musician who might perform a few songs at its annual benefit.
I recommended Steve Earle.
For several reasons. He has a new CD. He's a mesmerizing, charismatic presence. And in live performance -- let's just say you would not want to be sitting in the front row, drunk, with the mad idea that it would be cool to heckle this guy.
In short: a dream of a suggestion.
It was quickly rejected.
"The feeling of my colleagues is: We'd like someone more ... literary," I was told.
Excuse me? Steve Earle is a folk poet with a world-class reputation -- he's the successor to Woody Guthrie, with 15 CDs in his catalogue. And he's omni-talented: He's written a novel, stories and a memoir.
Not literary? Oh, I understand. That's code for: He sports a bin Laden beard, dresses in jeans and flannel shirts, and finds four-letter words suitable for all occasions. He's an actor... in "Treme," the HBO show set in New Orleans. And he's been married a stunning seven times. ("You can't say I lack commitment," he jokes.)
No, not literary like, say, Leonard Cohen. To steal his phrase, he's a "hard core troubadour." And The Low Highway is the latest chapter of that story.
Here's Steve Earle talking about his America, the inspiration for his new CD:
"I've been on every interstate highway in the lower forty-eight states by now and I never get tired of the view. I've seen a pretty good chunk of the world and my well-worn passport is one of my most prized possessions, but for me, there's still nothing like the first night of a North American tour: everybody, band and crew, crowded up in the front lounge, eating Nashville hot chicken and Betty Herbert's homemade pimento cheese, swapping the same tired old war stories half shouted over the rattle and hum of the highway. And I'm always the last one to holler good night to Charlie Quick, the driver, and climb in my bunk because to me it feels like Christmas Eve long ago when I still believed in Santa Claus. God I love this."
"Nashville hot chicken and Betty Herbert's homemade pimento cheese" -- you get the idea. This is a guy with stories. And a wish to tell them. And right from the start he had the ability to tell them with blunt eloquence.
There are fans who look to Steve Earle for his willingness to urge progressives to the barricades. They'll love "Low Highway." But that's not to say agitprop is his goal. His greater skill is to look hard at where we are -- an empire being run into the ground by fools and thugs -- and still see hope for people of intelligence and good will.
on April 18, 2013
Having Steve Earle go back to his buddy and long time producer partner Ray Kennedy has helped. Some tracks of 'Never Get Out of the World Alive' were exciting but overall I thought the production by T-Bone Burnett was flat and uninteresting. In contrast, Ray's production leaps right off the vinyl (which is audiophile quality too). And the range of styles, spanning folk, bluegrass, country rock, blues and even old time is remarkable, reminding me of why Steve's other masterpieces like 'I Feel Alright' and 'El Corazon' never stay too long in the unplayed pile. There is just so much music here.
I already had heard Invisible, Remember Me, Low Highway, and Burning It Down at one of Steve's recent solo concerts, and it's clear that the Dukes and Duchesses add a lot to the overall mix (I especially like Chris Masterson's guitar licks, which would not be out of place at a rockabilly concert in the fifties). Not that the solo stuff is weak--hardly, the songs are too good--but the instrumentation adds energy and depth. And rockers like Calico County show that at age 58, Steve still can play a wicked electric riff that would make Keith Richard smile. I can't recall hearing in Steve's repertoire a sound like the jazzy piano of "Pocket Full of Rain,' but it's exactly what powers the song and makes it sound so cool.
But the searing 'Remember Me,' about probably not seeing his three-year old son through to adulthood (as he said in concert, 'I did the math') is the kind of personal statement that the best songwriters wrench out of themselves. It's hard not to be affected by it, testament to an artist still working at his peak.
I feel like I've waited over a decade for Steve Earle to make an album this good again. Inspired by his work on the (extremely underrated) show, Treme, and working with his Twang Trust, he's put out a solid set of songs, probably his best since the high water mark of The Mountain, El Corazon, and (my personal favorite) Transcendental Blues.
Steve Earle has written theme albums for a while now. Political (Jerusalem, The Revolution Starts Now) and a personal tribute to his friend and idol (Townes), an ode to his adopted home city (Washington Square Serenade), the them this time is, broadly speaking, the road. Hitting the highway and seeing what's out there, good and bad. The aforementioned albums contain many great songs, but most contain some clunkers, too, or at least some mediocre fare. The Low Highway doesn't have any big misses - even if it doesn't have a knockout punch, either. Instead, it's a solid album from start to finish.
It isn't necessarily a criticism, but I do think that these songs will be even better live. They have a feel about them that just demands to be experienced in a live environment. I don't feel the same way about the masterpieces I mentioned before - those are great live, but they're also extraordinary recordings that totally work as recorded albums. On The Low Highway, "21st Century Blues" is a good song, but it's really meant to be banged out in a room full of thousands of people, this recording seeming just a bit insufficient.
Along with the excellent songwriting, the violin (should I say fiddle?) is the star of the show here. I think that's the main aspect that makes this album stand out from Earle's past few. Overall, I think Earle's fans will be pleased.
on March 20, 2014
Steve has taken a hard look at America in the "The Great Recession" which never seems to end. A bit of the anarchy of the Sex Pistols (although it be acoustic) in Thinking About Burnin it Down, the fever of the Clash in Calico County, the wisdom of Dylan and Woody Guthrie throughout the cd. The perils of morality in Remember Me (a song about his 3 year old son with Steve's age may not live to see grow up. From the discarded people of the Low Highway and Invisible he invokes Guthrie and Dylan. Guthrie having living through the Great Depression and Dylan attempting in his early years to imitate Woody. Showing true human kindness in Warren Hellman's Banjo where a former Wall Street trader gave his money and time to helping people. Open your ears, eyes and hearts listen to the people is his basic message which have suffered to long at the hands of greed and the Devil.
on April 18, 2013
Steve Earle continues a great string of albums with the music on 'The Low Highway'. I'm a long-time fan who had my interest in him rekindled with his appearances on the HBO series 'Treme'. After seeing him at a small Texas club in 2011 and after listening to his previous cd, 'I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive', I'm convinced he's the greatest American Troubadour living. If I had a negative comment about the newest release it would be that it reminds me a little too much of the previous one.
on June 7, 2013
It must be tough for artists to come up with a new batch of songs every few years, to sound fresh, invigorated and alive every go around. However, for some it seems effortless, awing and amazing us with each new release.
The best of the batch ~ Springsteen, Mellencamp, Cash, Petty, Waldman, Crowell, Seger, Bullens ~ are all absolute masters of walking a musical tightrope, equally balancing the personal and the observational.
Every one of the artists/writers listed above is willing to open up their heart and soul to the listener, then, with the flip of a switch, can be telling us about the lives, loves, losses and longings of the everyday people around them.
There's no doubt in my mind that Steve Earle has earned a place on that list. For over a quarter of a century now, he's been honest, sincere and real with us, sharing his joys and frustrations, anger and insight, short-comings and triumphs.
Nowhere is that more evident than on his latest release, THE LOW HIGHWAY. Expertly blending his own experiences with those around him, Earle touches upon (among other things) addiction, Katrina, insecurity, the economy and having a child late in life. Perfectly weaving in and out of each of these worlds, he is at his observational/introspective best. Seriously...in an already stellar career, this truly is a high point!
Things kick off with the thoughtful, vivid title track. With it's sublime arrangement, minimal instrumentation and simple, unadorned lead vocal, "The Low Highway" rivals anything Springsteen has recorded in the last thirty years. Just lovely. (Special kudos to Eleanor Whitmore and her KILLER fiddles!!).
I love it when Earle ROCKS...there's a Stones-esque quality and vibe that's just undeniable. Such is the case with "Calico County." With it's three chords, infectious backbeat and a-wink-and-a-nudge lead vocal, this little beaut gets under your skin and stays there, leaving you humming it long after the disc has ended. Love, love, LOVE this song!!!
There's both a beauty and a sadness to "Burn It Down." The arrangement and vocal are gorgeous, while the lyrics just tear at your heart. From the opening line of "When I was a boy, there were no limitations", the words just tumble out of the speakers, all raw and naked and brutally sincere. Gut-wrenching and breath-taking, all at the same time.
"That All You Got?" is another favorite. This Cajun-flavored duet between Earle and wife Allison Moorer starts out as a paean to a litany of woes ("Worry and pain? That all you got?"), but ends up as a victorious in-your-face rally cry ("Gonna spoil my day/Give it your best shot/Another hurricane?/Is that all you got?"). Once again...love it!!!
The only way to describe "Love's Gonna Blow My Way" is "fun." If you didn't know better, you would almost swear this was an old Ragtime gem from the 20's....you can almost see a sultry flapper vamping her way across the silent, silver screen! And the absolute lilt in Earle's lead vocal??? Oh...my...God! Crazy good!
There's a timeless quality to "After Mardi Gras" that is just so dang mesmerizing. Like one of those great 60's songs with a catchy melody and heart-breaking lyrics, this song has you tapping your toes and tearing up, all at the same time! Instrumentation, vocals, lyrics....all sheer perfection. Yep, sheer pop perfection.
"Pocket Full Of Rain" is another favorite. With it's Vince Guaraldi-like piano groove, this track is just cool with a capital "C." Between the smooth arrangement, funky instrumentation, growling lead vocals and autobiographical lyrics, well, it doesn't get much better than this. Yet another one of TLH's high points!
There's a vulnerability to "Invisible" that's just palpable. Graced with an understated, yet sublime, lead vocal, the track's true stars are it's lyrics: "An angel bendin' down/To whisper in your ear/You turn around but we're invisible." What can I say? It just doesn't get better than this....easily one of Earle's best tracks to date.
It's at this point that things take a slight dip. It's not that the next three cuts are bad...it's just that everything else is so, so strong!
As earthy as "Warren Hellman's Banjo" is, there's just something calculated and...forced...about the cut. It's just not as organic and REAL as (most of ) the rest of the disc. That said, there's no denying the instrumentation is top notch. We'll call this one a draw.
"Down The Road Pt.II" also seems half-baked...we've heard this song numerous times before from Earle. To say that he's moved beyond this type of thing is an understatement....on an album anchored by so much honesty and truth, it just seems like filler, and I can't think of anything worse.
"21st Century Blues" also has a recycled vibe/sound to it...it easily could have been an outtake from JERUSALEM in 2002 or 2004's THE REVOLUTION STARTS...NOW! The track just sounds kind of simple, sophomoric and, yes, whiny. Earle has SO grown beyond this pseudo-angry, yet, ultimately, light-weight fluff. A rare miss.
The disc closes with a lovely ode to the artist's young son, "Remember Me." With it's minimal arrangement and heartfelt lead vocal, the cut is just brimming with honesty, beauty, sincerity and charm. Simple, delicate and full of love, this is the perfect note to wrap things up on.
So many of those things that can be found on "Remember Me" can also be found throughout (most of) THE LOW HIGHWAY. To say that this is one of Steve Earle's strongest releases to date just doesn't do it justice....with his latest effort, Earle takes a giant step forward, elevating an already brilliant career up another notch or three. And after twenty-five + years, how many acts can say that? Bravo! (As with all my reviews, I'm giving the disc an additional half a star for including the lyrics).
on June 5, 2014
I'm a huge fan of Steve's...I have every album, every book and every DVD and Bluray release..I have seen him a dozen times in concert...I have met him in Nashville at River Front Park. The Low Highway is just one of those albums that I just cannot listen to very much. However, I'll buy anything Steve releases. Do yourself a favor and locate two albums by the V Roys...Steve produced this amazing band back in the '90's.
on May 27, 2013
For those who have found Steve Earle a bit lackluster lately, I recommend giving this a listen. He shows he can still deliver what promises to be a classic record.
Love's Gonna Blow My Way is beautiful, breezy and sounds a bit like a bouncier "Blue Skies"-- but then Steve has never apologized for being derivative, that is what makes folk music! Calico County is amazing, as are the Treme-inspired That All You Got and After Mardi Gras. Pocketful of Rain is another bluesy gritty favorite--it's hard to pick one. I just wish he sang a little more convincingly whe he sings about burning the Wal-Mart down.
I have been a lifelong Steve Earle fan, bought every album and gone to every show I could, and I am happy to hear him back in fine form after a period of mediocrity.