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Steve Earle proves that he can sing the blues as well as he can handle country music.

Music Review: Steve Earle & The Dukes – ‘Terraplane’

Steve Earle made his reputation as a country outlaw, writing songs that pushed the limits of that genre and often included biting social commentary. In retrospect it seems inevitable that he would record a blues album. Earle himself says, in the liner notes, “One day, when it was time, [I knew] that I would make this record.”

New West Records
New West Records

After all, the man has lived a bunch of blues songs. He’s been divorced seven times, spent a couple of months in jail (for possession) and made it through such serious addiction that it nearly killed him. All that living is reflected in Terraplane, which takes its title from the Robert Johnson song “Terraplane Blues,” which in turn was named after a car from the 1930s.

And it sounds wonderful.  The Dukes are a great backing band for Earle. His growling, weathered voice is perfect for the blues. It is easy to hear the influences of the Texas blues artists who influenced him growing up in Texas,  including Freddie King and Lightnin’ Hopkins.  Yet Earle’s songs and style remain clearly his own.

Perhaps the highlight of this album is “King of the Blues,”  a classic blues howl that recalls songs like Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy,” with its lyrics: “The day I was born the moon crossed the sun/Mama cried sweet Jesus what have I done.”

Other songs that deserve mention include”Better Off Alone,” a country blues that reflects weariness and resigned determination to embrace the single life after losing love yet again. Then there’s the rocking”Go Go Boots Are Back,” about life on the shallow side of things.

“The Tennessee Kid” is a chilling take on the classic deal with the Devil. This is no “Devil Went Down To Georgia,” or even “Crossroads.” This is sheer bone-chilling horror set in a blues song. Here’s a sample:  “And the monster raised himself up/To the fullness of his stature/Black wings eclipsing a sanguine Mississippi moon.” It mixes Bible imagery and various mythologies to create something only a flawed genius like Earle could create. It may be a bit much for some listeners but this reviewer was enthralled.

In addition to these songs, there’s the opener, ” Baby Baby Baby (Baby),” which is a classic 12-bar blues with some very tasty harmonica (even though I found the title somewhat annoying,)  the acoustic, Delta-influenced ““You’re the Best Lover I Ever Had,” and the country blues of “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now.” The one song that really is not blues is ““Baby’s Just As Mean As Me,” which is purely honky tonk country. It is a delightful duet with Eleanor Whitmore. After all, blues and country have sprung from the same common-man roots and have influenced each other for years.

The other three songs, “Acquainted With the Wind,” “Gamblin’ Blues, ” and “The Usual Time,” have less impact but they are perfectly acceptable numbers and the whole album flows well despite the variety of styles.

If you are a Steve Earle fan, you will be pleased that this is still recognizably Earle, although it is less political and more personal than much of his work. If you are a blues fan you will enjoy the album as well, whether you are already acquainted with Steve Earle or not. This is a very good album and highly recommended.

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About Rhetta Akamatsu

I am an author of non-fiction books and an online journalist. My books include Haunted Marietta, The Irish Slaves, T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do: Blues Women Past and Present, Southern Crossroads: Georgia Bluesand Sex Sells: Women in Photography and Film.

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