A Well-Earned Blues Record
Steve Earle’s 16th record is a blues record, and his first in the genre. The blues seems destined for any musician engaged with roots music to dabble in. It goes without saying that it’s at the heart of the entire era of music we are living in at some level. Nevertheless, blues purists out there love to get critical about any artist who takes on the blues but maybe doesn’t precisely capture the essence of Robert Johnson or John Lee Hooker. Terraplane is Steve Earle’s version of the blues, and a fine one at that. Hell, if anybody has earned the right to put out a blues record, it is indeed Steve Earle.
Recorded in Nashville, Terraplane contains many nods to the history of the blues both lyrically and musically. There’s no need to go through the things in Earle’s life that have given him blues credentials, but his latest tale of divorce (his 7th) from Allison Moorer, is right out there on tracks 4 and 5, and likely inspired the creation of this particular record at this particular moment. “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now” is a jaunty song set to acoustic guitar that is an ode to blissful freedom. Visions of Earle skipping down the street and clicking his heels butt up against “Better Off Alone,” the most somber song on the record. The pairing of the two songs show the progression of emotions that comes with any split, the initial short-lived high, followed by the low, low of reality.
Standard blues fare continues with an explicit nod to Robert Johnson (to say nothing of the album name itself), in the song, “Tennessee Kid,” which plays on Johnson’s tale of his meeting at the crossroads with the devil. Poetic lines such as, “He who sweeps away nations with a flick of his tail” are given a rapid fire spoken treatment, carried through with the Chris Masterson’s vicious guitar work. The whole song picks up a chugging steam instrumentally and lyrically towards the middle for one of the more refreshing rockers on the record.
Terraplane was produced by R.S. Field who has worked with blues greats like Buddy Guy and John Mayall. The song “The Usual Time” in particular, clearly benefits from those credentials, as it’s a straight ahead blues growler that stands on its own from the others. Others like, “Baby’s Just as Mean as Me,” which features a duet with Dukes band member and fiddle player, Eleanor Whitmore, giving the song an old-timey radio feel.
The subtle musical nods to specific bluesmen can be heard between the threads of the songs if you’re listening carefully and know your blues. “Better Off Alone” for example, has a nice guitar flourish and tone that’s a warm tribute to fellow Texan and blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughn. Those kinds of details make this very much a blues record ensconced in Earle’s own experiences and aesthetic. It may not be a blues record in the pure sense, but it’s certainly a blues record for fans of Steve Earle. And it bears saying again, he’s earned the right to make a blues record.