Saturday, April 27, 2013

Road Tested Tales: The Low Highway by Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses)

In the liner notes to his latest album, Steve Earle beautifully articulates his mission: “There’s something calling me out there. Always has been, ever since I was old enough to stand out on the highway and stick out my thumb.” But rather than write songs that are sentimental and full of longing for the days gone by, Earle has presented us with a wonderfully balanced look at the 21st Century as he sees it. The Low Highway (New West) is Earle’s thirteenth studio album, which was recorded in Nashville last year. Its forty-plus minutes feature 12 songs, all short and to-the-point, that represent an efficient writing style describing the work of Earle in recent years. On this record, his wit is subtle and his stories of people and places are deeply personal. They are road tested and individually crafted offering deep impressions of the current socio-economic climate, particularly in the United States.

The album opens with the title track, a man on the road travelling “from the snow white crown on the mountain tall, to the valley down where the shadows fall.” It’s a song about empty factories, lost veterans and people on the bread line. It's a song so powerful as to echo the stories once told by Woody Guthrie during the Great Depression. But while Guthrie’s point was to speak for a voiceless nation of poor people, Earle’s focus is one of compassion and hope for the voiceless, “wheels turnin' round on the asphalt sing and every sound is a prophecy…and every mile was a prayer I prayed, as I rolled down the low highway.” The album proceeds like a series of rest stops on the road.

First up is the tale of meth-producers of “Calico County” followed by the story of an angry young man looking to set fire to an intrusive Wal-Mart on “Burnin’ It Down.” We then travel to New Orleans for two songs, co-written by Lucia Micarelli, which debuted on the HBO TV Series, Treme. “That All You Got?” talks about the strength of New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina while “After Mardis Gras” talks about the irresistible lift you get from that city’s annual celebration. “All that music in the air, happy people everywhere, make it hard to sing the blues…put my loneliness away, save it for a rainy day.” These two songs best represent Earle’s conditional optimism in spite of the struggles people endure. I particularly like “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way” because it celebrates inertia. As Earle sings “People goin places pass me by, I don’t care cause I know I got plans made; And I don’t need to do a thing, but stand right where I am ‘cause someday love’s gonna blow my way.” This is not a song about luck or chance. The narrative is hopeful and patient, “Takes forever that’s okay, ‘cause somthin’ in the air says someday love’s gonna blow my way.”

Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses)
The optimism of “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way” is balanced by the stark sadness of “Invisible,” which was the first single off the album. It’s a song I didn’t like at first, sluggish in its delivery and just too blue for my mood at the time, it’s actually a song perfectly suited to the Earle canon. “An angel bendin’ down, to whisper in your ear, you turn around but we’re invisible…you hear the sound but they’re invisible.” In this song, Earle quietly talks about the everyman Woody Guthrie often sang about in his songs by striping away layers of American idealism or the willful blindness of the rich.

On “Down The Road Pt II” Earle revels in the myths of personal freedom, found not internally but by hitting the highway, “Roll over Kerouac and tell Woody Guthrie the news, heard it said there ain’t nothin’ ahead but I don’t know, down the road I go.” Clearly Earle finds a certain degree of freedom on the low highway. After all it’s not the “free” highway or the “lost” highway, but it is a road less travelled and Earle’s experiences speak to the feelings of most people he’s seen. He gratefully acknowledges this view in his introductory essay in the liner notes, “God help me if I ever forget to count my blessings when I walk out on a different stage in a different town night after night to find an audience…who paid hard earned money to hear me sing MY songs!”

Earle caps the feeling on one his best songs, “21st Century Blues” as he lists all things he was promised but never delivered, “It ain’t the future that Kennedy promised me…a goddamn American utopian dream, and if you believe that then you’re more optimistic than me,” Earle sings. Yet for all that America hasn’t delivered, he remains positive, “only thing I know for sure is we stand now on the verge of history. The world can be anything that we want it to be…maybe the future’s just waitin on you and me.”

The Low Highway is a strong record that compliments Earle’s “road” oriented albums, Exit 0 (1987) and Copperhead Road (1988), only this time his angst has been balanced by introspection and experience.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Winds Orchestra.

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