Steve Earle back with new album

Steve Earl & The Dukes
Photograph by Tom Bejgrowicz

Steve Earle & The Dukes are set to return with Guy on March 29th, 2019. A return to New West Records, the 16-song set is comprised of songs written by one of his two primary songwriting mentors, the legendary Guy Clark. Guy appears ten years after his Grammy Award winning album Townes, his tribute to his other songwriting mentor, Townes Van Zandt. Produced by Earle and recorded by his long-time production partner Ray Kennedy, Guy features his latest, and possibly best, incarnation of his backing band The Dukes including Kelley Looney on bass, Chris Masterson on guitar, Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle & mandolin, Ricky Ray Jackson on pedal steel guitar, and Brad Pemberton on drums & percussion. Guy also features guest appearances by fellow Guy Clark cohorts Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Terry Allen, Jerry Jeff Walker, Mickey Raphael, Shawn Camp, Verlon Thompson, Gary Nicholson, and the photographer Jim McGuire.

Steve Earle first met Guy Clark after hitchhiking from San Antonio to Nashville in 1974. A few months after his arrival, he found himself taking over for a young Rodney Crowell as bassist in Guy’s band.

“No way I could get out of doing this record,” says Earle. “When I get to the other side, I didn’t want to run into Guy having made the Townes record and not one about him.”   Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark were like Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to me.”

The mercurial Van Zandt (1944-1997) who once ordered his teenage disciple to chain him to a tree in hopes that it would keep him from drinking, was the On The Road quicksilver of youth.  Clark, 33 at the time Earle met him, was a longer lasting, more mellow burn.

“When it comes to mentors, I’m glad I had both,” says Earle. “If you asked Townes what it’s all about, he’d hand you a copy of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.  If you asked Guy the same question, he’d take out a piece of paper and teach you how to diagram a song, what goes where. Townes was one of the all-time great writers, but he only finished three songs during the last fifteen years of his life. Guy had cancer and wrote songs until the day he died…he painted, he built instruments, he owned a guitar shop in the Bay Area where the young Bobby Weir hung out. He was older and wiser. You hung around with him and knew why they call what artists do disciplines. Because he was disciplined.”

Guy wasn’t really a hard record to make,” Earle says. “We did it fast, five or six days with almost no overdubbing. I wanted it to sound live…When you’ve got a catalogue like Guy’s and you’re only doing sixteen tracks, you know each one is going to be strong.

There was another reason, Earle said, he couldn’t “get out of” making Guy.  “You know,” he said, “as you live your life, you pile up these regrets. I’ve done a lot of things that might be regrettable, but most of them I don’t regret because I realize I couldn’t have done anything else at the time. With Guy, however, there was this thing. When he was sick — he was dying really for the last ten years of his life — he asked me if we could write a song together. We should do it ‘for the grandkids,’ he said. Well, I don’t know…at the time, I still didn’t co-write much, then I got busy. Then Guy died and it was too late. That, I regret.”

Artist’s website:

There are no videos from the new album yet but here’s a live version of a classic recorded a few days ago:

STEVE EARLE & THE DUKES – Terraplane (New West)

TerraplaneTaking 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.”

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘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…