Steve Earle, once all but given up for dead, metaphorically if not literally, has been riding a white hot hand since returning from the long dark night of drug addiction and musical oblivion. He’s released four critically acclaimed albums since 1995 — an acoustic wonder, Train a Comin’, and a bluegrass diamond, The Mountain, wrapped around two country rockin’ monsters, I Feel Alright and El Corazon — a windfall payoff for those who bet on him early (he was a “next big thing” in the late ’80s, we ended up with Garth instead) and didn’t cash out when the going got ugly. Now, his latest release, Transcendental Blues, has just debuted at #5 on Billboard‘s country album chart, sandwiched between Nashville brand names Shania Twain and George Strait, and it’s hard to decide what’s the more boggling, the fact that it’s an indie label release or that it’s Earle, alt-country godfather, that we’re talking about. What’s the world coming to?
I’m not complaining mind you, and it’s got to taste sweet to Earle, especially considering that The Mountain failed to show on Billboard‘s chart last year, even though it moved enough units its first week to check in at #13, because, according to Billboard doublespokesman Geoff Mayfield, Earle hadn’t been on the country chart in more than a decade and his record company wasn’t promoting a single to mainstream country radio (huh?). But the real irony of this happy turn of events is that there’s nothing much “country” about Transcendental Blues. It is, in fact, one rocking mother.
Sure, Earle nods to his Texas folk roots on the sad-eyed “Lonelier Than This”, the steady rollin’ “Halo Round the Moon”, and “Over Yonder”, the last words of another dead man walking, and the Bluegrass Dukes (Tim O’Brien, et.al.) show for “Until the Day I Die”. And he has a bang-up time playing the Irish rounder on the jumping “Steve’s Last Ramble”, and “The Galway Girl”, both recorded in Dublin with Sharon Shannon and band. But from the get go, the grit and groove title track, the bulk of Transcendental Blues is the work of a hard-core troubador giving no quarter, some of it straight out of the garage (“Everyone’s in Love with You”, “All of My Life”), some straight from the heartland (“Another Town”, “When I Fall”).
Earle is no longer an angry young man, and though he may be mellowing in middle-age, he sure hasn’t gone soft. Don’t let the pipe, or the slot on the country chart, fool you.