Over his thirty year career, singer and songwriter Steve Earle has been at the forefront of the Americana music movement. Since he escaped the grip of substance abuse, Earle has freely mixed elements of rock, country, folk, and bluegrass into a potent blend of music that never shied away from addressing controversial topics or examining facets of modern life. Blues has also been a part of his sonic landscape with originals like “Hometown Blues”, “Meet Me In The Alleyway”, and “South Nashville Blues” being fixtures in his repertoire.
In the liner notes for his latest excursion, he delves into a brief attempt to describe the nature of blues music before offering this summation, “For my part, I’ve only believed two things about the blues: one, that they are very democratic, the commonest of human experiences, perhaps the only thing that we all truly share and two, that one day, when it was time, I would make this record”.
“Baby Baby Baby (Baby),” is a rowdy shuffle that starts things off in fine fashion. Earle belts out the lyrics like he is preaching to the weekend crowd at a local juke joint. He blows some minimalist harp that seamlessly melds with Chris Masterson’s sinuous guitar licks. The familiar theme of the Devil at the crossroads gets a modern treatment on “The Tennessee Kid,” with the singer calling out the evil spirit by his many names while The Kid cries foul. “You never mentioned nothin’ about no kinda’ note. Just said sign here, It’s just a soul – you’ll never miss it!” Eleanor Whitmore’s fiddle adds an unearthly element to the tale of the supernatural realm.
The rhythm section for Earle’s band, the Dukes, lays down a Jimmy Reed-style groove on “The Usual Time”. Kelly Looney on bass and Will Rigby on drums set a forceful pace on “You’re the Best Lover That I Ever Had” before switching to a lighter, swinging foundation for “Baby’s Just As Mean As Me”. The former finds Earle in the throes of an illicit love affair while the latter track has him sharing the spotlight with Whitmore for a spirited vocal duet proclaiming their passion can survive the occasional rough spots.
Earle picks up the mandolin for “Acquainted With The Wind,” combining with Whitmore’s fiddle for a backwoods’ flavor as the singer boisterously heralds his rambling nature. The band also uses acoustic instruments on “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now,” with the singer praising big city women while denying them a hold on his body & soul. “Better Off Alone” is a dark, brooding look at the final moments of a disintegrating relationship.
Other standout tracks include “Go Go Boots Are Back,” sounding like it came straight from Keith Richards’ workshop. Earle repeatedly shares his delight at the change in fashion and the cyclical nature of life while the Dukes produce a churning cauldron of rhythmic force. The hard-rocking’ “King Of The Blues” packages familiar imagery into a gritty manifesto, leaving Earle to boast about his mastery of all things in this world and the next, finishing off with the pronouncement, “I’m the last word in lonesome – and the King of the Blues”.
Leave it to Steve Earle to craft a loving tribute to blues music that celebrates the past by refusing to merely copy it. With masterful backing from the Dukes, he offers the world a vibrant take on the genre that maintains focus on the songs and their emotional core, eschewing long-winded displays of instrumental technical mastery. We can only hope that more artists and bands take his approach to heart. The world would indeed be a better place.