Taking its title from the 1930s classic car that also lent its name to Robert Johnson’s ‘Terraplane Blues’, Earle’s 16th studio album sees him and the band digging into all shades of Texas blues (though ‘The Usual Time’ does take a ticket to Chicago), the songs paying musical tribute and homage to a variety of legends and heroes, from the Fort Worth sound of Freddy King to the Houston style of Lightnin’ Hopkins, embracing the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Johnny Winter and Billy Gibbons along the way. As such, while it may be personal from a musical perspective, lyrically Earle’s seeking to mirror the genre rather than as a channel for his own feeling and views. As such, it may be hard for those who worship at the altars of ‘Copperhead Road’ or ‘Jerusalem’ to get their head round the harmonica-sucking, down and dirty swagger of ‘Baby Baby Baby (Baby)’, the chorus of which consists of the repeated title, though the drawled line “a little town they call ‘shut my mouth’” sounds like prime Earle to me.
It’s not the greatest opening track ever, but it sets the mood for what follows with the wet-lipped baby let your hair hang down mojo of ‘You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had’, the 60s Muddy Waters blues rock groove of ‘King of the Blues’ and ‘Go Go Boots Are Back’, a swamp blues number that can’t quite decide whether its borrowing its riff from Creedence’s ‘Green River’ or the Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’.
If these represent the gutsier, electric side of the blues, there’s several counterpoints that take the fingerpicked, acoustic route, first up with the baccy-chewin’ feel of the fiddle accompanied ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now’, the drawled slurry of the mandolin backed ‘Gamblin’ Blues’ (a track as haunted by the ghost of Guthrie as any of the Texas bluesmen) and the 30s string band swing of the lyrically wry ‘Baby’s Just As Mean As Me’ duet with Eleanor Whitmore.
Although, as I say, Earle’s voice isn’t particularly personal here, there is one track where it’s hard not to read the lyrics as referencing his seventh divorce, this time from Allison Moorer, namely heart-aching resignation of the spare slow waltz blues ‘Better Off Alone’, which also happens to be the best number here.
Being a blues album, there are, of necessity, a couple of staple requirements. The scuffle-along ‘Acquainted With The Wind’ provides the obligatory rambling man song, fired up by Whitmore’s fiddle and a riff that evokes The Who’s ‘My Generation’, but then Townshend probably stole it anyway from the blues anyway. Naturally there also has to be something about the devil, a crossroads, a battle for a bluesman’s soul and, if possible, mention of Robert Johnson. All these boxes are dutifully ticked by ‘The Tennessee Kid’, an hypnotic track that has Earle speaking the narrative in hell-fire preacher tones (particularly unsettling as he recounts the devil breathily rasping “hey hey hey hey”), opening with a suitably Doorsian drone before sliding into a low humming Canned Head boogie and throbbing guitar solo.
It’s unlikely to make many Steve Earle’s Top 5 albums list, but then, as he says in the notes “everybody’s sick of all my fucking happy songs anyway.”
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‘You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had’ – live on the back porch:
Can’t get enough of the “Earle and the Dukes” so folking ‘ave a bit more…