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Music Review: Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses) – “The Low Highway”

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It’s his 15earle2th studio album, yet after all those years (and miles), Steve Earle is still angry, still snarling and spitting out slurred words that articulate the despair and hopelessness that is the dark side of the American Dream. He’s still giving voice to the voiceless and the invisible, the lonely and the lost.

The Low Highway reunites Earle’s current road band, The Dukes, for the first time since 1987’s Exit 0. It’s also the first to include The Duchesses on the billing: Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle, mandolin, and ‘the thing,’ and Earle’s wife, Allison Moorer, on keys and accordion.

It’s very much a road record, a collection that’s restless and agitated, full of questions and indignation. “Hard times in the new millennium,” he snarls in “21st Century Blues,” a raging heartland rocker, while on the title track he feels “the ghost of America watchin’ me/Through the broken windows of the factories.”

It’s bleak, but for the most part Earle’s anger and indignation offer hope. His characters may be downtrodden but they’re survivors, somehow holding on against the odds, against luck, against fate itself. Like Earle, they’re unafraid to face the hard truths, refusing to back down and refusing to surrender their dignity. The narrator of “Burnin’ It Down” sits in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart that’s sucked the life from his hometown, contemplating the only act of defiance that can possibly make a difference, while the accordion-driven “That All You Got?” encapsulates the resilience and indomitable spirit that makes America great.

The latter tune was written for the HBO series Treme, as were the positively jaunty “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way” and “After Madi Gras,” all three making their recorded debut here. Though it’s an original, “Warren Hellman’s Banjo” sounds as though it could well be centuries old. The obviously personal “Remember Me,” though without so much as a whiff of sentiment, is achingly poignant nonetheless.

Though there’s no shortage of electric guitars to be found“Calico County” is an outright rockerthe overall feel is acoustic, thanks largely to Whitmore’s exquisite fiddle and mandolin, as well as lots of acoustic bass from Kelley Looney. Earle himself is in fine form, belligerent and cantankerous, slipping in and out of various voices and varying degrees of outright exaggeration, yet somehow always sounding as honest and true as the very land itself.

Earle’s had a long and storied career with many a detour along the way. He’s never lost the fire, though, never settled for anything less than a fierce and unwavering commitment to his own musical truth. The Low Highway may well be his best outing yet. This one’s absolutely essential.

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