Almost twenty years ago, Steve Earle and I took a ride through South Nashville. It was down those mean streets that Steve had spent his famous “hiatus” in the early [...]
Almost twenty years ago, Steve Earle and I took a ride through South Nashville. It was down those mean streets that Steve had spent his famous “hiatus” in the early 1990’s mostly shooting dope. It was a crazy, unprecedented thing. Here was a guy – the supposed “new face” of outlaw country – who had already put out a near unbroken string of instant classics, including chart hits like Guitar Town, Someday, and the immortal Copperhead Road. And he just up and disappears, drops from sight for four years, making no records, playing no shows. Many thought he was dead.
By the time we met, Steve was on the way back, through his sixty-day stint in the Davidson County Jail, firmly in recovery. He’d already released a couple new discs, the masterly acoustic Train A Comin’ and the defiantly electric I Feel Alright. But you could tell, he wasn’t all the way back. Clean and sober can be a transitory thing, the ghosts of the old days are far from fully vanquished, if they ever will be. Steve wasn’t sure he wanted any more of South Nashville, but being Steve, which is to be an adventurer and a sport, he agreed to take the tour.
“This is Lewis Street,” Steve said as we turned right off Fain. The neighborhood hadn’t changed all that much since Steve holed up there, listening to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic on a near permanent loop. A number of local denizens were killing time on the corner, craning their heads to see if these particular white boys were buyers or cops. But I was already familiar with Lewis Street from the tune South Nashville Blues, which appears on I Feel Alright.
A bit of old-timey shuffle, South Nashville Blues was very definitely a blues song. This was a little unusual, Steve told me back in 1996. “Because I don’t play a lot of blues tunes. I don’t think I’m really that good at them.”
This is a perhaps not so roundabout way to getting to Steve Earle’s newest collection of songs, the sixteenth studio album of his singular career. It is called Terraplane, and as those familiar with the Robert Johnson song should know, it is very much a blues album, a very good, typically heartfelt blues album.
But the question was, why now? Why was Steve making a blues record now? Steve twirled at the fringes of his beard. He got that sort of cramped accusative tone and asked, “you saying I made a blues record because I’m getting divorced?”
“Well, that’s what everyone is going to think.” Steve’s voice rose. “I know that’s what they’ll think! And they won’t be wrong…but it is a little more complicated than that.
“I knew I’d make a blues record back when I was doing the Low Highway. Weird, doing the sessions of that record – Allison’s on it but we were really coming apart. After that, I spent a long time on the road, a lot of time by myself. I wrote a third of Terraplane on tour in Europe, five weeks traveling around alone with just a guitar, a mandolin and backpack. I needed to be by myself and I needed to see if I could do it. Songs like Better Off Alone came out of that.”
“I’m patient, but I’m focused. There’s a lot to do. I’d like to write a musical, I’m working on a country record. I think a lot people this age feel like this. And if there’s one thing I know about songwriting, it doesn’t matter if it’s a love song, a song for my kid, or about an issue, something I saw on TV – is what experiences we have in common. As a songwriter, that’s where I want to go, to touch that place between me and you.”
Because when it comes down to it – and to the great benefit of Steve Earle’s many admirers – it’s only so long that an honest man can avoid playing the blues.
– Mark Jacobson, Brooklyn, NY
(Saturday) 8:00 pm
Tupelo Music Hall
2 Young Road , Londonderry, NH