(photo: Ted Barron)
Like a musical Colossus of Rhodes, Steve Earle bestrides American roots with one foot in country and another in folk. Roots music fans instantly recognize the sound of his work, from the hard-charging country-rock hit “Copperhead Road” to the politically-themed Americana of the Jerusalem album to his folk love letter to the late Townes Van Zandt, simply called Townes.
But, on the subject of the blues, Earle has this to say, “For my part, I’ve only ever believed two things about the blues: 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.”
That day has come. On February 17th, Earle and his band, The Dukes, will release a blues album, Terraplane. Even from the title alone, the blues imagery is evocative. The Terraplane was a car manufactured by the Hudson Motor Company from 1932 until 1938. Its low cost and powerful engine made it both a useful vehicle and coveted status symbol in the rural South where America’s original blues scene thrived. The genre’s love affair with the Terraplane was cemented by “Terraplane Blues,” a classic blues car-as-sexual-metaphor song recorded by that most storied of bluesmen, Robert Johnson, in 1936.
There are several reasons we should not be surprised to see a blues album from Earle.
In the liner notes to Terraplane, Earle observes “…the blues are anything but superficial. In fact, they run so deep and dark and close to the bone that folks walk around everyday with the blues as though it were perfectly natural for a human being to go on living with a broken heart.” A genre with such primal power must have exerted an irresistible pull on a musician and songwriter celebrated for his heavy-hitting songs that examine weighty issues—as experienced through the eyes of everyday folks.
Earle’s personal background also offers fertile ground for blues. Along with the Mississippi Delta, Texas was one of the blues’ primordial heartlands. Raised outside of San Antonio before moving to Houston, Earl offers this about Texas blues, “There was Fort Worth where the model was Freddy King, and there was the Houston scene which was dominated by Lightnin’ Hopkins. Two very different styles.” In exploring a Texas connection, it is also interesting to note that Johnson recorded “Terraplane Blues” in Earle’s childhood stomping-ground of San Antonio.
In recording Terraplane, Earle and The Dukes enlisted some veteran support. The album was produced by R.S. Field, who brings some serious blues credentials to the project with production credits including genre icons Buddy Guy and John Mayall.
In advance of Terraplane’s release, Earle has released one of the album’s tracks, “You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had.”
Listen to Steve Earle and The Dukes perform “You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had.”
If “You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had” is any indication, Terraplane isn’t kidding around when it comes to exploring the blues. Don’t expect this to be one more example of an out-genre artist half-dabbling in making a blues album while keeping one foot in rock or country. The song’s bona-fides are established from its instrumental opening: simple, clear blues plucking on an amplified acoustic, gritty Delta slide-work on a second guitar and self-consciously minimalist percussion that does little more than anchor the song’s rhythm and tempo. Earle’s vocals, understated and with a note of barely constrained passion, prove tailor-made for a blues song in the old Delta style.
Notably, “You’re the Best Lover That I Ever Had” is generally felicitous in sticking to the blues’ AAB lyrical conventions. Of all the characteristics of traditional blues, that is the one most frequently jettisoned by artists from other genres when making a blues album—because, well, it’s hard. It is little surprise that a songwriter of Earle’s caliber is up to the challenge and a very favorable augury for Terraplane that he has chosen to embrace the challenge.
And, the lyrics are impressive. To consider just one verse,
Hey honey, put your lips on mine,
Hey honey, put your lips on mine,
Smooth like silk and sweet like wine.
The words are both evocative and ring with an authenticity that cannot not be taken for granted in contemporary blues recordings.
Musically, one of the most intriguing aspects of “You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had,” is that its sound is overwhelmingly that of Delta Blues rather than, for Earle, the more familiar stylings of Texas Blues. Your reviewer is very curious to see if the rest of the album follows suit.
Terraplane will be released February 17th on New West Records. It will be available on CD, digital and vinyl formats. For serious Earle fans, there will also be deluxe CD/DVD release featuring 24-bit high-res audio as well as an interview with Earle, videos of acoustic performances and a short film about the making of the album.
For all the love blues music has received since the early days of rock n’ roll, the genre remains more widely revered than practiced. Seeing a master musician and songwriter such as Earle turn his hand to one of America’s seminal music genres is truly a welcome development.
Steve Earle & The Dukes – Terraplane Track Listing:
1. Baby Baby Baby (Baby)
2. You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had
3. The Tennessee Kid
4. Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now
5. Better Off Alone
6. The Usual Time
7. Go Go Boots Are Back
8. Acquainted With The Wind
9. Baby’s Just As Mean As Me
10. Gamblin’ Blues
11. King Of The Blues
Listen to Robert Johnson performing “Terraplane Blues.”