- Steve Earle
- The Low Highway
New West Records
Steve Earle wastes no time in getting things rolling on The Low Highway : the title song features Kelley Looney’s easy-loping bass counting ‘em off while Chris Masterson’s pedal steel soars and moans like a semi rolling by. “Travelin’ out on the low highway/Three thousand miles to the ‘Frisco bay,” sings Earle, his observations of the land and people he’s witnessed through his windshield a combination of Sal Paradise and Woody Guthrie. It’s the perfect way to launch the album’s themes of movement/restlessness/loneliness and, ultimately, the discovery of love and contentment.
Earle’s companions for this journey are The Dukes (Looney, whose presence dates back to the Copperhead Road days; Masterson on guitar and pedal steel; Will Rigby on drums) and The Duchesses: Earle’s wife Allison Moorer on keys and vocals; Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle and mandolin; and Siobhan Kennedy on vocals. Earle has put together some great recording ensembles over the years, from the original Dukes lineup of the late ‘80s to the Del McCoury Band for 1999’s The Mountain. The Dukes and Duchesses are the ideal roadmates for the twists and turns of The Low Highway. They easily shift gears from the reflective acoustic chug of the opener to the wild-ass fishtail of “Calico County”. The guitars are as rough and raw as Earle’s vocal:
Half a case of cold pills soakin’ in a milk jug
Hydrochloric acid iodine and phosphorous
Careful not to get any on ya when you shake it up
That’s the way we cook it up in Calico County
Things slam into a string-bending bridge at the 1:16 mark, but for the bulk of the song the band follows Rigby’s groove, banging the main riff out with the bass bumping along beneath it all like a bent tailpipe dragging on a dirt road.
Other cuts aren’t as obvious in their intention, but are all the more intense for that very fact. If you were half-listening to the melody of “Burnin’ It Down” from the other room, you might peg it as a love song. Which it is, of sorts – testament of a grown man’s love for a town he left as a boy and can never return to, as it’s changed irrevocably. “Nothin’s ever gonna be the same in this town,” sings Earle, his character sitting in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart – “half a mile from where I grew up” – and thinking about burning it down. Earle’s delivery is gentle; the end result is terrifying.
But there are many more stops along the road: “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way” zippity-doo-dahs its way along like a 1940s-vintage pop song, with Whitmore’s fiddle combining Stephane Grappelli’s fluidity with Scarlet Rivera’s wild-but-dead-on abandon. “Pocket Full Of Rain” rides on the shoulders of a jazzy piano with Masterson throwing in a few moments of well-muzzled guitar roar late in the tune.
“After Mardi Gras” and “Invisible” are full of honest reflections. In the former, the singer has much – too much – to deal with; “But I can’t bother with it all/Until after Mardi Gras,” he declares. And though Earle’s vocal nails the ache of being “Invisible”, it’s the song’s simmering fiddle-morphing-into-pedal-steel break that seals the deal.
A gritty mando propels “Down The Road”:
Standin’ on the highway with the road burnin’ through my shoes
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 …
sings Earle, all growl and hoot and swagger, Whitmore’s fiddle weaving around him in a swirl of Gypsy vibe and Appalachian stomp.
“21st Century” swings from is-this-all-there-is questions (“No man on the moon, nobody on Mars/Where the hell is my flyin’ car?”) to a message of hope:
We stand now on the verge of history
The world can be anything that we want it to be
Where there’s a will there’s a way; where there’s a fire there’s a spark
Out in the streets downtown in the park
Maybe the future’s just waitin on you and me
In the 21st century
“Remember Me” closes the album on a note of wisdom and love that’s almost too personal to witness: an older father speaking to his child, knowing that the reality of the math of the situation (“I wasn’t young when you come along”) is against him.
You’re lookin’ at me I’m lookin’ at you
And it’s everything a grown man can do
Not to break down and cry like a fool
When you smile at me
I can only hope I do my best
With whatever time that we got left
And when everything’s done and said
You’ll remember me
It’s beautiful and it’s heartbreaking and you end up hoping that Earle (who has a 3-year-old daughter) is the exception to the rule while a sweet mandolin wipes away the tears in your eyes.
All in all The Low Highway is a wonderful ride. On his last album, Steve Earle sung that he “Didn’t know I was gonna live this long/Now I’m sitting on top of the world.”
The Low Highway is proof that one can find contentment and stability in life without losing any of his edge.
Brian Robbins takes the low highway straight to www.brian-robbins.com