Album Review: The Low Highway by Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses)
Excellent, Based on 10 Critics
Rolling Stone - 100 Based on rating 5/5
You can hear the road in Steve Earle's voice, a craggy rumble with a whole lot of mileage on it. But that voice is also a finely cadenced instrument, perfect for the burly roots rock, Dylan-style roadhouse blues and jaunty bluegrass-ragtime of his 15th LP. The Low Highway doesn't always fulfill his ambitions; the title track aims for a Guthrie-esque grandeur it doesn't reach.
The cumbersome credit of Earle’s new album – the first time any of his fellow players have been afforded a front-of- sleeve name check since 1990’s The Hard Way – is presumably an attempt to acknowledge the camaraderie of life on the road. As the title itself suggests, these 12 songs are largely inspired by the experiences of travelling troubadours singing for their supper. It’s more of a motif than a full-blown concept, but few singer-songwriters are as qualified as Earle to chronicle the pleasures and pitfalls of long-haul touring, as he’s been doing it almost constantly for the best part of 40 years.
Fifteen albums in, Steve Earle is still at the top of his game. This time around, he brings his fantastic live band - Chris Masterson, Eleanor Whitmore, Kelley Looney, Will Rigby and Allison Moorer - into the studio, and this energizes the revered Americana musician. The tunes are lively, soulful and diverse, each with Earle's Texas drawl and trademark poetic storytelling in the foreground.
At 58, Steve Earle can now be considered an elder statesman of the music world. He’s been through a lot and has a lifetime of experiences to speak of. He is after all, a man who was for better or for worse mentored by the late, great Townes Van Zandt, rocketed to country music stardom with the mid-‘80s success of Guitar Town and then nearly lost it all as he suffered through a bleak and desolate spin through addiction and incarceration.
Over the past 27 years Steve Earle's music has journeyed all across the Americana spectrum: country, rock, folk, Beatlesque psychedelia, topical folk songs, etc. He's even done a covers record of Townes Van Zandt songs to pay tribute to his late mentor and friend. His very best offerings are those he's recorded with his Twang Trust production partner, Ray Kennedy.
Steve Earle's status as American legend keeps growing, helped by a recent role in David Simon's Treme and a book deal for his memoir and a second novel. He covers his musical spectrum on this 15th album, beginning with a stark gaze at America's decline on the wistful country rock of the title track, a theme picked up on 21st Century Blues, where "millennium" is rhymed with "bare minimum". There are blazing rock-outs (Calico County), down-home bluegrass (Warren Hellman's Banjo) and three tuneful songs from Treme.
Steve Earle & The Dukes And DuchessesThe Low Highway(New West)Rating: 4 out of 5 stars He’s such a busy guy these days, what with his acting and writing careers, that it’s possible that some younger folks might not realize that Steve Earle is one of the finest songwriters of his generation and a fearless recording artist. Those talents have been hidden somewhat in his last few releases: 2010’s I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive was more like a collection of stray songs than an album proper, while 2009’s Townes was a covers album featuring Steve’s old buddy and musical influence Townes Van Zandt. The Low Highway leaves no doubt that Earle is clearly focused on his music.
Steve Earle fomented plenty of controversy in 2002 with “John Walker’s Blues”, a song that speculates on how an “American kid raised on MTV” could end up an enemy combatant. (We sadly find ourselves asking the same question this week in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.) In addition to drawing ire, the Lindh narrative cemented Earle as a songwriter who doesn’t place restrictions on where he searches for stories worth telling — be they his own or someone else’s. On The Low Highway, Earle once again lends a gritty and sympathetic (or at least non-judgmental) voice to those whose stories often go untold until they make destructive headlines.
In 1986, Steve Earle shook up the country music scene with "Guitar Town," an unabashed celebration of life as a touring musician. With The Low Highway, Earle is back traveling those same roads, but the scenery is much different. His move to NYC from Nashville in 2007 marked a significant softening of his one-time badass image, although throughout The Low Highway, Earle reconnects with America's dark corners, both musically and spiritually.
The Low Highway marks several firsts for Steve Earle. First album to credit the Dukes since 1987, it's also the first to acknowledge his wife Allison Moorer and Austin's Eleanor Whitmore as bandmates, dubbed the Duchesses. Three songs written for HBO's Treme, on which Earle played a street musician, make their recorded debuts as well, yet the renegade singer-songwriter's most rewarding accomplishment here remains the variety of styles and the ease with which they're executed.