At 58, Steve Earle can now be considered an elder statesman of the music world. He’s been through a lot and has a lifetime of experiences to speak of. He is after all, a man who was for better or for worse mentored by the late, great Townes Van Zandt, rocketed to country music stardom with the mid-’80s success of Guitar Town and then nearly lost it all as he suffered through a bleak and desolate spin through addiction and incarceration. That’s all old news to most folks, though. Earle’s second act has produced droves of material, so much so, that those late to the party would hardly recognize the skinny and cocky kid who snarled his way through classics like “The Devil’s Right Hand” and “Copperhead Road” with reckless and uncared abandon. The man has been so productive in the 15-plus years since he cleaned up and set off on a path of redemption, that his past almost seems like it was someone else’s.
Like another of his mentors, Bob Dylan, Earle can be a bit of a shape-shifter, dabbling in different identities and trying on new hats as he is forever in search of enlightenment, adventure, and truth. His single-minded determination and uncompromising attitude still resonates and drives him; however he’s put it to more productive use as he’s aged. Instead of picking fights with cops, Earle now aims his frustration and disdain at targets more worth his fury: the greedy Wall Streeters and spineless politicians being habitual points of reference for Earle’s progressive swipes. He’s also seemed to grab hold of something else in recent years, though: perspective. His marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Allison Moorer and the birth of their child John Henry seems to have opened a reflective side to his personality. He is still raging against the injustice and standing up for the beleaguered, but there’s a bit of personal investment this time around too. He appears to be asking about what he can do for those closest to him and what kind of legacy can he leave behind.
Earle brings this mindset to The Low Country, his 14th studio album and first to be co-produced with Ray Kennedy (together known as the Twangtrust) since 2004’s The Revolution Starts Now. This note is of importance, because it appears that Kennedy’s presence and insight can drive Earle’s music into more urgent and forceful rhythms. Where Earle’s recent (sans Kennedy) albums have suffered a bit from a lack of lyrical depth and melodic focus, here he rises back to his wheelhouse, working in an eclectic, yet confident manner that hearkens back to his post-jail, six-album run of near-perfection. This is also his first album in eons credited to his old backing band, The Dukes, this time modified in name to the Dukes (And Duchesses) and featuring Chris Masterson and his wife Eleanor Whitmore on guitars, fiddle, and backing vocals, drummer Will Rigby, bassist Kelly Looney, and rounded out by Ray’s wife Siobhan Kennedy on vocals and the aforementioned Moorer.
It’s a band of “pro’s pros”, whose versatility and musicianship is apparent throughout. They’re there to lend muscled delicacy to the quieter, yet gorgeously reflective tracks, straightforward thunder to the grittier rock tracks, and authentic joy to several upbeat and joyous numbers that serendipitously pop up like a canceled meeting on the busiest of work days. It’s the sound of a confident band that together weaves their individual talents into a well-assembled and well-worn machine. The musicianship trickles into Earle as well, who seems to have an extra spring in his step, as he delivers these songs with a little added force and meaning, sounding less like a man trying his hand at new trends, and more like one at ease with himself, content to play his songs with clarity of vision.
In the accompanying liner notes, Earle talks a lot about traveling, quite literally in fact: “I’ve been on every interstate highway in the lower 48 states by now and I never get tired of the view.” And for a road warrior, like Earle, both the quote and the album title make perfect sense. However, in the album-opening title track, he also looks at the concept of traveling from a more figurative perspective as he provides keen observations on things he sees along the way, a lot of it complicated and not so pretty. He sings of the empty houses, food shortage lines, and busted-up factory windows that provide the “naked bones of better days”. This is what’s happened to a lot of our country’s brightest land, and Earle’s plaintive delivery makes the fact resonate. It’s an unfortunate truth of our recent times and Earle acknowledges these concepts while continuing to “roll down the low highway” searching for answers or solace.
Putting this track first sets the table for the rest of the album, as Earle examines the dilemmas and duality of the land its’ flawed characters further. There’s the hell-raisin’ meth head of “Calico County” representing those that often get lost and forgotten out in America’s back regions, the bewildered reflections of busted small-town dreams from the menacing narrator at the end of his rope threatening to send the local Wal-Mart up in flames in “Burnin’ It Down”, and the sardonic, technologically dissatisfied man in “21st Century Blues” who sits wondering what delays his once-promised time machine and flying automobile. (While initially seeming to be one of the album’s more lightweight tracks, something about this song remains fascinating…think less the dirge-like blues of “John Walker’s Blues” and more of the “what-the-hell-you gonna-do?” variety). Solid material abounds throughout, from the two breezy numbers originally written for the Earle’s HBO series Treme, to the fiery duet sung with Moorer, to the achingly rendered plea for remembrance written for he and Moorer’s young son that closes the album. At a tad under 40 minutes in total running time, it offers the right balance between musical style and lyrical perspective, never wallowing too low or remaining stuck in a neutral, mid-tempo rut.
Never one to hide in the background or suppress his train of thought, Steve Earle has made a career by marching to his own beat and championing the causes to which is drawn. Like all great storytellers, on The Low Highway, he expertly marries the communal and the personal to show us that we’re all connected in life’s journey. There are voices to be heard and decisions to be made, and even though not all have equal say, we all travel down that same road hoping to make sense of things. It’s good to have guides like Earle around to help bring things in focus.