On Terraplane, Steve Earle and his band the Dukes mine pretty much all the classic themes of the blues — ramblin’, gamblin’, love gone wrong, and a midnight meeting with the Devil at the crossroads, where a soul is exchanged for phenomenal guitar chops. With some exceptions, however, the album — Earle’s 16th and his first all-blues effort — comes off as a generic reworking of these themes rather than a fresh take on them. Keith Richards, who knows a few things about the genre, has observed, “If you don’t know the blues… there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.” It’s not that Steve Earle doesn’t know the blues; he’s played blues and blues-rock before, and as a Southerner (born in Virginia, raised in Texas), he can claim the music as part of his cultural heritage. (Created by African Americans, the blues long has had white performers, like the ’20s “blue yodeler” Jimmie Rodgers, whom both Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King have cited as an influence.) Earle also is conversant with the idiom’s lore and language: his album’s title comes from Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues”, in which the Delta bluesman compares a sexually unresponsive woman to a car whose “little generator won’t get the spark”.
But if Earle knows the blues, on Terraplane, he too often doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.
The self-described “hardcore troubadour” has lived a life rich in source material with addiction, prison, multiple marriages, and much family drama. There’s no law decreeing that a blues album has to be autobiographical, but the stronger entries on Terraplane are the most personal. Earle and his sixth wife, singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, divorced in 2014, and the breakup informs two of Terraplane’s best tracks. “Better Off Alone” and “Nobody’s Daddy Now” are flip sides of the emotional coin: the first, slow and desolate, as Earle acknowledges the truth of the song’s title; the second, up-tempo and jaunty, with the singer reveling in his newfound single status: “Standin’ on the corner Bleecker and Carmine / Money in my pocket and women on my mind / I’m free.” Earle and the versatile Dukes give each exactly the right treatment: a blues waltz featuring Chris Masterson’s stark, stinging guitar on “Better Off Alone”; old-timey acoustic country blues featuring Eleanor Whitmore’s fiddle on “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now”. The rest of the album only sporadically reaches their level.
Earle has said that he became interested in the blues as a teenager, through blues-influenced rock bands like Canned Heat, ZZ Top, and Led Zeppelin. But like so many young white fans, his interests turned from the secondhand to genre masters, like John Lee Hooker, Mance Lipscomb, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, as well as later, and flashier players like the guitarists Freddie King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Terraplane, comprising 11 Earle originals, mixes most of these influences, but it leans more toward the older, acoustic styles.
The album begins inauspiciously with “Baby, Baby Baby”, a dull tune consisting mainly of the title, repeated over and over. “Gamblin’ Blues” is as generic as its title (nobody knows a gambler when “his luck is down”). “Acquainted with the Wind” is just as hackneyed, lyric-wise (“I’m a travelin’ man/wherever I roam”), but its mix of country blues and riff-rock — Earle on mandolin and Whitmore on fiddle provide the downhome flavor, guitarist Masterson the rock ‘n’ roll — make it one of the album’s better numbers. “The Usual Time” (that is, for lovemaking) reworks Buster Brown’s 1959 R&B hit, “Fannie Mae”. “Baby’s Just As Mean As Me”, a duet with Eleanor Whitmore, harkens back to ’30s string band music, and it’s a wry delight.
“King of the Blues” has a sludgy, John Lee Hooker-ish groove (bassist Kelly Looney and Masterson especially good here), and Earle’s lyrics mix classic blues tropes (“St. John the Conqueroo”) with more literary, singer-songwriter lines (“a consummate jack of all trades of the Dickensian school”). And talk about literary – on “Tennessee Kid”, Earle’s version of the tale of a hungry young guitar player who sells his soul to the Devil, set to a Hooker boogie beat, the language at times is downright Elizabethan: “The kid invoked Lucifer himself/with oaths most grievously discourteous/and charged him submit forthwith to atone…” It’s self-conscious and a bit forced, but at least there’s a spark of originality, of writing that’s more than a reworking of blues ready-mades. And the menacing “hey, hey, hey” is a nice touch.
“Go Go Boots Are Back” has a great title and a Stones-ish guitar riff, but it illustrates one of the album’s major weaknesses: Earle’s often colorless, overly laidback vocals. The blues is a music of strong vocal personalities, of men (and women) with vivid, outsized personas – think of Muddy Waters’ hoodoo-spiked eroticism, or Howlin’ Wolf’s commanding rasp and roar. Those two titans are models to aspire to, and next to impossible to equal. But “Go Go Boots” cries out for what Earle could, but fails to deliver – the kind of lewd yet tongue in cheek attitude that is Mick Jagger’s stock in trade. Earle instead sounds humorless and detached.
As the song says, the blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad; it is a music that expresses with emotional directness and earthy poetry the quotidian sorrows and pleasures that make up the human condition. Terraplane is a respectful homage by a gifted singer and songwriter, but it only intermittently provides the pleasures of a topnotch blues record.