BY FRED MILLS
If you’d been wishing and praying for Steve Earle to cut a blues album, this note’s for you, bub. Let’s face it, though the songwriter’s generally regarded as unimpeachable by kid glove-wearing critics (not to mention his rabid fanbase), he hasn’t sounded truly, madly, deeply inspired since his politically-charged days of the early part of the last decade. As decent as 2009’s Townes collection of Townes Van Zandt covers, 2011’s T Bone Burnett-produced (and accompanied-by-novel-of-same-name) I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive and 2013’s Treme-influenced The Low Highway were, those records were somewhat spotty, each boasting prime candidates for an Earle mixtape but, taken collectively, suggestive of a moderately distracted man. Too many outside projects—author, actor, summer camp counselor, etc.—perhaps?
No one will begrudge a man his multitasking, of course. And Earle has, if nothing, earned everyone’s undying respect at this point (with, perhaps, the exception of son Justin, who lately seems to be deliberately dogging his father’s heels with his own releases, including his latest, Absent Fathers, reviewed HERE and which hit stores exactly a month earlier). Terraplane, though, is the sound of a man utterly rejuvenated. As you might surmise from the Robert Johnson-by-way-of-1930s-Hudson-Motors album title, it’s a blues record, and at least two of the song titles have the word “blues” in them. The blues has long informed Earle’s songwriting; hell, he grew up in Texas, not exactly an area known for its deficiency in blues musicians. Those 12 bars, 3 chords and the truth have been good to the man.
But such an overt dip into the genre still catches us Earle watchers a little off-guard. Just the opening track alone, “Baby Baby Baby (Baby),” a harp-honkin’ li’l shuffle that finds Earle all a-quiver with lust even as he’s mooning over a gal who lives a thousand miles away but has him “walkin’ on the ceilin’ and bouncin’ off the walls,” will have you twisting your head stageward and signaling the barkeep to keep lining up the shots. Up next is the strum-and-slide-guit acoustic thumper “You’re the Best Love That I Ever Had,” Earle exploring such classic blues tropes as “baby, let your hair hang down” and “baby, turn your light down low” without ever once sounding like he’s going through the motions or cribbing from the Songbook Of The Blues. That’s a rarer feat than one might imagine; only a few bluesmen can get away with singing oft-uttered clichés on the strength of their vocal prowess and personal magnetism.
Yet immediately after, in “The Tennessee Kid,” a spooky, droning slice of hill country boogie, there’s Lightnin’ Steve, huffing and moaning and going all “hey-hey-hey-heyyy” on us, like some modern-day John Lee Hooker.
That’s only the first three friggin’ tracks. You half expect the enterprise to run aground after an opening salvo that strong, but nope. From the luminous, waltz-time, almost Fiftiesish “Better Off Alone” to the saucy, Stones-styled riff ‘n’ twang of “Go Go Boots Are Back” to the grungy, swampy, funky, downright nasty manifesto “King of the Blues,” Terraplane brings both style and heft, making for a press-repeat listen all the way through. It’s right up there with such undeniable Earle classics as 1997’s El Corazon and—I’m not joking here—1988’s Copperhead Road. With his band The Dukes also cooking on all eight cylinders (the Kelly Looney-Will Rigby rhythm section in particular), you can bet the live shows are gonna be motherfuckers. My suggestion: sit back, strap in, and enjoy the ride. It might not last; there’s this business of a memoir, I Can’t Remember If We Said Goodbye, set to be published shortly, and no doubt multiple acting offers loom too. But Earle is nothing if not predictable.
Oh yeah, and remember this: he don’t take no requests, so don’t bother hollerin’ ‘em out.
DOWNLOAD: “King of the Blues,” “Baby Baby Baby (Baby),” “The Tennessee Kid”