I’ve come to believe over the last twenty-plus years that you are either a Steve Earle fan or not. There are no fence-sitters when it comes to the man’s music, his expression, and certainly not his politics. You either get him or you do not.
Personally, I have never met a Steve Earle song that I didn’t like.
Low Highway, the newest release from Steve Earle and the Dukes (and Duchesses) hit the streets on April 2, 2013. A varied but sparse, and often raw, musical statement, this collection softly, firmly demonstrates that Earle, and the talented people with him, can dig into the depths of what songs are truly meant to do – tell the stories of our people and move our souls with music.
Steve Earle is often categorized as country. We evidently need more categories, or fewer might be even better. By today’s contemporary Nashville country standards for airplay, Earle doesn’t fit. (In my book, that is a blessing.) Let’s call this music made from traditional means since it moves across bluegrass, Zydeco, country, and even bumps up against jazz. Anyone with ears and a brain can tell Earle is a masterful singer and songwriter. With a voice that bends and stretches, he isn’t merely singing, he is illustrating the stories and the lives in his songs. Speaking to, and gently celebrating, the courage it sometimes takes just to keep going, Earle’s expression is matter of fact, up close, and personal. The images and messages here, wrapped up in a guitar and harmony, can sink in. Get ready for the rollercoaster of emotions.
Aptly named, Low Highway feels like a journey across our country, our music, our lives, and ultimately our mortality.
We start this trip among the people at the low end of the economy, those forgotten, scraping. Opening with the title track, “Low Highway” picks up where Guthrie left off. I can feel the spirit of “This Land is Your Land,” even though this view from the ground is more derelict, haunted, yet still holding on to hope. From gritty and poignant we move straight to the harsh images of “Calico County.” Distortion and bass and a simple melody carry stories of not just desperation but of giving in without giving up. Ask yourself – what if your life was such that setting up a meth lab looked like a solid step in the right direction? “Burnin’ it Down” – the Walmart, that is, a corporation able to trap communities between a rock and hard place one at a time. Slow, plodding, embodying the emotion that comes when hope is gone, power is gone, and choice is removed.
Then we swing down to NOLA. “That All You Got?” starts that Louisiana vibe with Zydeco, bravado, and electric guitar. The female vocalist, and no one seems sure who she is but I’m betting Allison Moorer, is wonderful here. The upbeat mood continues with snappy, countrified, jazzy “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way.” Earle’s vocals shift and curve, and the strings remind us of a different era. “After Mardi Gras,” complete with whispers of carnival and a strong fiddle solo, is rich and inviting. No major decisions should be made during Mardi Gras, solid advice if I’ve ever heard any. Staying with that jazz feel, “Pocketful of Rain,” is rich with piano. I like this stretching of the usual and the intimacy of the mix.
Then we move to the streets. “Invisible,” acoustic and lonesome, is the first single from Low Highway, see the video, below. Earle isn’t letting us off with a tearful song about people enduring homelessness. “Invisible” is stronger than that and inevitably calls us to confront our worst human fear – being considered insignificant – in the face of others. We are all connected, my friends. If your empathy capacity isn’t stretched a bit with “Invisible,” you are dead.
For the bluegrass section of our trip, we are given tribute to billionaire philanthropist Warren Hellman, benefactor of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival held annually in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Both Hellman and the festival were important to bluegrass musicians as well as bluegrass lovers, and “Warren Hellman’s Banjo” is a short but heartfelt bluegrass message to Jordan’s shore. “Down the Road, Pt II” conjures the age old bluegrass traveling bug tune with mandolin, fiddle, and rich guitar. This is peppy and fun and offers reprieve from collection’s the more weighty topics.
Wrapping up Low Highway are “21st Century Blues” and “Remember Me.” Interestingly both songs talk about promises and pledges from one generation to the next. “21st Century Blues” is, on the surface, a radio-friendly lament for flying cars and the Kennedy Era promise, but beneath is the wish that the U.S. had made more progress for its people, its ideals. Two steps ahead, one back – that is the slow slog of progress, and it hinges on hope. Earle sings “Where there’s a will there’s a way, there’s a fire, there’s a spark, out in the streets, downtown in the park. Maybe the future’s just waiting on you and me in the 21st Century.” And finally, in a deeply personal song written for his son, John Henry, Earle dwells with his own mortality, as I suppose only a father of older years can, in “Remember Me.” What does any child need most? To know that someone wants them. This is almost a hymn and slides the Low Highway journey to a close seamlessly.
I’ll end with an admission. This review has been a hard one to write. I love the CD, but Low Highway isn’t an easy collection to nail down in words, to take apart and explain. It isn’t that sort of music for me – it is fiddles and guitars and styles and vocals, but more so it is shards of lives, little audio panoramas full of back story and empathy and plot. Earle has already said everything in his songs with what feels like fearless honesty and devotion to his craft. Just go buy the CD and sink in.