Album Review: Steve Earle, ‘Terraplane’
Born in 1912, Sam John Hopkins was affected by the blues at a very early age, most notably around 1920 when he first met Blind Lemon Jefferson in Texas. Hopkins, who would come to be known as "Lightnin'" in the mid-'40s, is arguably one of the greatest guitarists and bluesmen in the history of music -- and his influence is still heard today.
Case in point, Steve Earle -- a man who will himself be known as one of the greatest alternative country and Americana troubadours 100 years from now -- points to Hopkins in the opening words of the liner notes for his new record, Terraplane. "Lightnin' Hopkins once said, 'The blues is something that's hard to get acquainted with. Just like death ... the blues dwell with you each and every day and everywhere."
He discloses near the end of the notes that he always knew he'd make a blues album, and with Terraplane, the time is now. "Hell, everybody's sick of all my f---ing happy songs anyway," he opines.
And with that, Terraplane opens with the bluesiest track on the record, the suitably titled "Baby Baby Baby (Baby)"; in one chorus alone, the word "baby" is said 17 times. The sentiments of that track blend perfectly into the next, "You're the Best Lover That I Ever Had," a song that found Earle admitting in an interview, "Everything that happens to me will find its way into my lyrics, which can be an advantage as a writer and a disadvantage as a person."
With those two straightforward blues rockers opening Terraplane, Earle throws in a curveball with "The Tennessee Kid," a song that is sometimes spoken, sometimes sung and all the time gritty as hell. There's a thick layer of tough gravel found in the music and Earle's vocals throughout the album, but it's on full display in this haunting track that reflects Robert Johnson's infamous deal with the devil. Once again proving his respect for and influence by the great bluesfolk that came before him, Earle tells the story of a kid meeting "Satan / Mephistopheles / Beelzebub," and justifies the deal made with Lucifer: "I ain't set foot in a church since I was just a little ol' thang / Reckoned I was headed straight to hell by the highway / No matter how long and how hard that I prayed / So I might as well learn how to make this guitar talk / Somebody said ol' Bob Johnson came down this way." Could the Tennessee Kid be Steve Earle?
Throughout the rest of the record, Earle, his blues-soaked guitar and gruff voice further bring to life this century-old music, thanks in big part to his band, the Dukes -- bassist Kelly Looney, fiddler Eleanor Whitmore, drummer Will Rigby and guitarist Chris Masterson. Whether it's the groovy "Go Go Boots Are Back" or the old-timey "Baby's Just as Mean as Me" (featuring a beautiful duet with Whitmore), Steve Earle and the Dukes' efforts culminate in the LP's final, fuzzy track, "King of the Blues." Regardless if he's singing about himself or not -- "I'm the high priest of heartache and the King of the Blues" -- the song serves as a final ode to a history of great rock and roll, and a nod to its future, a future that can be nothing other than vibrant with people like Earle leading the charge.
Dedicated to Johnny Winter, Terraplane could be the definitive blues album of the 21st century. Still laced with his alt-country roots, the record is one of Earle's best, one we consider his greatest since 1996's I Feel Alright. Just as Hopkins was influenced by his surroundings and the people he met, Earle lets his music and songs tell the stories of what's happening in his life. If "the blues dwell with you every day," we can only hope we have Earle as our narrator.