Blues Review – Steve Earle’s “Terraplane”
So the elder Earle wanted to make himself a traditional blues record, huh? Well, not that I don’t defend his right to do whatever he wants as a music artist, but it doesn’t make it smart or sensible or gainful or right. It’s a little self-indulgent, frankly, don’t you think? At least on the surface that is. What do we need Steve Earle making blues records for? Are there not enough of them? Wouldn’t the blues be better handled by career bluesmen? Wouldn’t the listener find something more authentic thumbing through the Fat Possum catalog or the collection from some old Memphis recording studio?
Hell even a white boy like Scott H. Biram who’s been singing the blues for years, or someone like Johnny Winter who spent his life studying the discipline could hypothetically pull off a better, more authentic blues record. But we’re entering an era where some of our music heroes seem to be searching for a way to re-energize their enthusiasm in their own music. Steve is making a blues album, Robert Earl Keen is off recording bluegrass standards, and Aaron Watson is covering John Mayer. Meanwhile you can’t drive your car through a college town without a cattle guard on the front to knock away all the suspenders-wearing string bands populated by anthropology majors. Whatever happened to authenticity being one of the basic building blocks of music, and everyone else sticking to rock and roll?
No matter what Steve Earle does, we’ll always have those late 80’s gems that went onto help create an entirely new sub-genre of country music regardless of how forgettable an album here or there may turn out to be. Remember the time Neil Young was all off into electronic music back in the 80’s? Of course you don’t, that’s my point.
So that’s where we’re at with music in 2015. Authenticity is, well, arbitrary, and maybe we should just accept Steve Earle aping the inflections and modes of an old black man and just worry more if we enjoy it or not. It’s not just that he’s playing blues music, it’s the old poor black man affectation in his voice. This is one of the unsavory parts of the ‘Americana’ movement that is otherwise a bastion for creativity—it’s populated by a very predominately white and over-educated audience listening to other intellectual whites sing about the struggles of blacks and the under-educated poor.
Or maybe when it comes to Steve Earle singing the blues, it’s more complicated than that.
“Lightnin’ Hopkins once said, ‘The blues is something that’s hard to get acquainted with. Just like death.'” Steve says in the liner note introduction of this album. “Then he declared with his very next breath, ‘The blues dwell with you each and every day and everywhere.'”
Earle goes on to say, “I’ve only ever believed two things about the blues: one, that they are very democratic, the commonest of the human experience, perhaps the only thing that we all truly share and two, that one day, when it was time, I would make this record.”
Okay, so maybe it’s not fair for one to judge Steve Earle for making a traditional blues album even if he’s on the outside looking in to the discipline. Because as he states through the immortal words of Lightnin’ Hopkins, the blues is actually more universal, and this aching to make a blues record has been building and gestating in him over time to the point where his efforts will be well-seasoned and worthy.
And really, that’s what you get with Terraplane—yes, it’s a leftist white dude waxing like he was weened in the Delta land, but it’s also really well done, and interpreted authentically enough to where it is respectful, and most importantly, entertaining.
Steve Earle wrote all of these songs, which is remarkable in itself. This dalliance would be a lot less palatable if he was covering “Mustang Sally.” But the first song plays right into the concerns of Steve Earle as blues impersonator with lines so hokey and nonsensical, you wonder if it’s on purpose, clued off by the silly title “Baby Baby Baby (Baby).”
I got a girl that live way down South
A little town they call ‘Shut my Mouth…’
Baby baby bay you’re fine
Got me hangin’ on the telephone line
If this is humor, can we at the same time also call it reverent interpretation? But as Terraplane rolls on, Steve Earle makes you recognize his deep respect for the blues, most notably on a song called “The Tennessee Kid”—a mouthful of rolling prose working in the classic blues framework of a player who sells his soul, but revitalized by Earle’s meritorious effort. You can tell right off the bat this song is destined for top billing in Earle’s entire body of work, and the parallel between selling your soul to the devil and signing on the dotted line on Music Row shouldn’t go overlooked.
“Gamblin’ Blues” and “The Usual Time” are other notable tracks that really hit on the perspective one needs to authentically interpret the blues, and though it’s probably the least bluesy of the songs, “Go Go Boots Are Back” also stuck out as one of the more enjoyable songs. “Baby’s Just As Mean As Me”—a duet with Elanor Whitmore—was another of Terraplane‘s takeaways, both classic and renewed.
Officially this is an album with The Dukes—the name of Earle’s on again and off again backing band, and the contributors are a big sum positive for the effort. Elanor Whitmore and Chris Masterson (who have their own ‘The Mastersons’ project), producer R.S. Field, the rhythm section of Kelly Looney and Will Rigby, and engineer Ray Kennedy create an album that feels real, gritty and in the appropriate era without being overly saddled with tape hiss or silly techniques to make it sound old that will feel like slimy trend faux-pas years from now. And as has been the case with a few of Steve Earle’s recent records, the cover art by Tony Fitzpatrick is an asset.
More interpretive than authentic? Sure. A little self-indulgent on Steve’s part? Maybe. But you don’t have country, and you don’t have rock without the blues. And without Steve Earle, you don’t have country rock, at least in the same capacity as it stands at today. Steve Earle has been making blues records for years. It was just the more evolved, modern version of it. To know where music is going, you have to know where it came from, and Steve Earle evidences a studious and heartfelt testament to his devotion to an irreconcilably important foundation of American roots music in Terraplane.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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February 22, 2015 @ 3:54 pm
I actually enjoyed this record a ton but I definently see your point Trigger. I’m surprised you didn’t care for Better Off Alone though honestly.
February 22, 2015 @ 4:38 pm
I liked that song. There wasn’t really any I didn’t particularly care for except “Baby Baby Baby (Baby),” especially to start to album off.
February 22, 2015 @ 5:21 pm
February 22, 2015 @ 5:45 pm
i thought it was a bit harsh trigger. Steve has been making outstanding country, rock bluegrass records since the 1980s. I also didn’t notice any affectations in his voice that sounded any different than any other Steve Earle record. This was a great album as usual from a phenomenal artist.
In short if the old man wants to make a blues record to get him through the divorce he’s earned it.
February 22, 2015 @ 7:09 pm
I disagree that the affectations in Earle’s voice and lyrics either represent his past work in general, or his general way of singing, talking, or writing. “My little gal she stand five feet ain’t. I wanna hold her but I know I cain’t,” (copied verbatim from the lyrics) represents an affectation aping the style of talk of a Southern black man. Though it may be appropriate to the music, and well-written by it’s understanding of character, since it is coming from Steve Earle, it is difficult to call it authentic. That was my only point. But as I continue in the review, I attempt to resolve this concern as a listener, and not because Steve Earle deserves a pass because he’s put out so many great albums, but because it’s enjoyable to listen to.
I agree Steve Earle should be allowed to make a blues album if he wants to. What the circumstances of artist’s personal lives are when they make an album or song is just as irrelevant when critiquing a work as their past accomplishments. However I do think that Steve Earle and The Dukes put a lot of heart into this project, and the result was something I felt deserves a positive grade and a recommendation to readers, which it received.
February 23, 2015 @ 8:00 am
Trigger is dead on with his assessment! This Steve Earl albums comes off as phony. I like Steve Earl as much as the next guy, and the album is not bad. “Phony” sums it up.
February 23, 2015 @ 8:02 am
Sorry, Steve Earle
February 22, 2015 @ 5:58 pm
It’s been a long time since you wrote something that pissed me off.
Thank God, in the final lines of your review you wrote, “Steve Earle has been making blues records for years” – my head was about to explode! I can’t think of anything more authentic than Earle making a blues album. His discography is littered with examples of him studying and mastering the discipline – Oxycontin Blues, CCKMP, Hometown Blues, My Old Friend the Blues. The latter hailing from the “late 80”™s gems that went onto help create an entirely new sub-genre of country music.” I would argue Earle making a blues album is more natural than his dabble into bluegrass – The Mountain.
Your review neglected to mention anything about Earle’s work on the post-Katrina TV show Treme. He stared in the show as Harley Wyatt, worked with many notable New Orleans blues/ jazz artists, and was recognized by the Grammy and the Emmy awards for his work on the drama. Not doubt in my mind, his work on Treme heavily influenced and fast-tracked this album.
If 20 years covers a “few of Steve Earle”™s recent records”, then sure, Fitzpatrick’s album artwork has been on a few of Steve Earle’s recent records; it’s been every album since 1996’s “I Feel Alright.”
In my opinion, your review undermined the natural evolution of Earle’s career that got him to making a blues album. Which surprises me, because you applaud the scattered multi-genre work of the Mavericks, but something this focused and purposeful get’s questioned.
February 22, 2015 @ 7:44 pm
Unfortunately the sarcasm font apparently didn’t take on the mention of Fitzpatrick’s cover art. I’ve been an admirer of his work for years, and was excited to get the opportunity to mention his name. I apologize if it came across like I was diminishing him when my effort was to do the opposite, and can understand how it would be taken that way if you didn’t like the way the review was going in general.
I really don’t see how Earle’s work on ‘Treme’ was essential to mention here. In fact commenter “Harsh” above seems to think this blues album was stimulated by Steve Earle’s divorce. That’s why it’s best to just listen to the music and give an opinion simply based on that, and leave any back story to sidebars if there’s space, which in this review there wasn’t.
If I criticize artists for putting on fake accents, which I’ve done for Old Crow Medicine Show and others, or criticize mainstream artists for not being authentic, then it’s only fair to include this criticism of Steve Earle if it is topical. As I go on to explain in the review, I feel like these concerns are eventually resolved in the album, but the fact still remains that some of Steve’s performances are affectations, and there’s more authentic options in the music world. You can write and perform a blues song while not trying to affect something you’re not, and Steve has done that many times in his career.
Because it seems like a lot of folks have concerns I was being too harsh to Earle, let me explain it like this:
Album reviews are inherently boring, and it is my job to attempt to engage people with them as a vehicle to promote music, artists, and ideas about trends and taste. I thought to be engaging, I would present a fair viewpoint to Steve Earle making a blues record, and then spend the rest of the review resolving why even though that viewpoint may be justified, it shouldn’t get in the way of the listener enjoying what in the end is quality music that is well made. I knew going in that some people would not make it all the way through, but I’m disappointed that I was unable to communicate through my writing what I was attempting to do.
Nonetheless, I sand behind everything I said in the review.
February 23, 2015 @ 9:25 am
I did make it all the way through, but I was steaming after the first few paragraphs. I guess you were playing devil’s advocate, to some extent.
I listened to the album again last night. As far as “Baby Baby Baby (Baby)” goes, I think it is just supposed to be a fun blues ditty and kind of reminds me of Jimmy Reed. And I’m not so sure that Steve singing “cain’t” can automatically be said to be him aping a black man. He was raised in San Antonio and he speaks and sings with a thick drawl. Also, I can think of at least one other white Texan who sings “cain’t” in a song (Billy Joe Shaver: You just cain’t beat Jesus Christ. No, you cain’t). And even if he is affectating a little bit, I don’t really care that much. I personally think one can hung up too much on “authenticity.”
I don’t think of this album as a traditional blues album, like say, when Eric Clapton did “From the Cradle.” It’s a bluesy Steve Earle album, which is pretty much what I expected. Like others have said, he has done many blues songs through the course of his career, probably enough to to fill up a “One Foot in the Blues” compilation album. I welcomed the news that he was going to do a “blues album” and I think he delivered. Great album. My favorite so far this year.
February 23, 2015 @ 11:58 am
Earle’s use of the word “Cain’t” is not the alpha and omega of my concerns about inflected signing and writing. Pretty much this whole album is filled with examples. I’ll spare rattling them all off to you.
“And even if he is affectating a little bit, I don”™t really care that much. I personally think one can hung up too much on “authenticity.””
That was sort of the point of the entire review, but apparently you’re not the only one who didn’t pick up on that, so I guess I will blame myself.
Also, it’s one thing to do a blues song and maybe include affectated language and singing. It’s another to make an entire album that way. I think that’s where it reaches the level of exposure. And I do think this is a traditional blues record, and is meant to be taken that way. Steve Earle says as much in the liner notes.
February 24, 2015 @ 9:43 am
I guess it is mostly traditional. A couple of songs are more blues rock and Better Off Alone sounds more like classic Steve Earle. He certainly HAS the blues on that one, though.
February 24, 2015 @ 9:05 pm
I am a big Earle fan but I read your review with the same interest (and also detachment) of other critical reviews you have written about artists I love. I am curious about the accent/inflection and the genuine nature it. But I also know I have had to translate Steve for friends”¦”Tayoeyes from Paradise and rise again somehow””¦I’ll save my judgement until I hear it. Jason Isbell and I had different fathers, I scrubbed my accent the first few years I loved west. But it takes me 30 seconds back home and I sound as I did. Does New York have a hillbilly/white trash district?
June 6, 2015 @ 8:16 am
Got my tickets to Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen and thought I would get the new vinyl”¦.revisiting your review and my comments were reserved”¦now that I hear it, it pains me to say you are right. The accent/inflection is there, cannot deny it, on many of the tunes. As a fan, he does not normally sing that way. It reminds me of past albums where he used the mic effects to muddy his voice”¦I think he is determined to change up his sound at a minimum. Also, many of the tunes have a period with an associated sound. I like the sound of the songs but I think they would have been better, arguably more genuine as claim, if he sang it clean in his true voice. I wonder how offended Steve would be to have that question addressed to him? He seems unflappable but he seems to have a hell of an ego. He is still one of the greatest country songwriters in my mind. A true legend, with or without Terraplane. I hope you get a chance to ask him, I would be curious to his response.
June 28, 2015 @ 11:00 pm
I saw REK and Steve Earle and the Dukes last night and was relieved that none of the voice modification (aping) occurred. Just Steve doing his blues then running us through a stretch of historical hits and circling back around. They rocked the crowd…Steve talked about his divorce (just signed the papers) and he mentioned he was voting for Bernie Saunders for President (no surprise there). REK tore it up prior to Steve for a double bill not to miss if one has a chance. Legends.
February 23, 2015 @ 3:15 am
I’d be singin’ blues songs too if I’d just split with Allison Moorer . I know , I know its about Steve ….but that woman is an incredible vocalist and ….well ….beautiful .
February 23, 2015 @ 7:16 am
I didn’t really think you were being negative or harsh in the review. It was sarcastic, but I wouldn’t call it harsh. It was a fair review, that was overall positive. Personally, I love anything Steve Earle does, including this album. Thank you for reviewing it.
Bigfoot is Real (eat your heart out Chupacabra)
February 23, 2015 @ 8:03 am
I actually think this is a excellent review in that it’s both fair and informed. Love most (but not all) of Steve’s work and this one is another that will find its way to my collection. Authentic blues though aren’t completely uncharted for him though as Steve did display some amazing Peidmont style blues chops and finger picking on “South Nashville Blues” from the album I Feel Alright Tonight (my own personal favorite Steve Earle album).
One note on “Terraplane” I am willing to bet that it is a nod to Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” his very first single.
February 23, 2015 @ 2:42 pm
If you ever listen to his show on Satellite Radio, which I’m sure you’ve heard, this guy is a music encyclopedia. He loves and knows all kinds of music. He just got divorced again and doing more of a blues album which he hasn’t done before I think is perfectly timed.
I give him huge props for the songwriting being so good and not making it sound like “generic” blues with strats a blazing etc. It leans more on delta blues like you mentioned, but to me he’s had some songs not too far off over the years a lot like these.
I think it’s his best album in a long time. The last 2 really seemed below what he can deliver. I applaud his balls and the high quality he brought to this one!!
February 24, 2015 @ 9:28 pm
I’ve never heard Steve Earle’s show on Satellite Radio. I do not have satellite radio, like 90% of Americans.
Another vote for the blues album being because of his divorce. Who is keeping score?
I don’t doubt Earle’s knowledge or intentions whatsoever. I was just making a point about authenticity that seemed to be fair.
February 23, 2015 @ 6:47 pm
Since it came up, Earle and Moorer are not divorced, but separated. In many interviews they both said they are “working on it’ – if that’s the divorce or their marriage, I’m not sure. If you don’t know, their 3 year old son was born with autism. It seems to have really affected Moorer – her new album is pretty heavy. I personally hope they work though these difficult times and get back together.
February 24, 2015 @ 7:29 am
More recent interviews they have dropped the “working on it,” and say it just is not final. My sense, reading between the lines, is that this was really her decision and he would like to keep working on it. Not that there may not be fault on both sides. And, as you say, a child with disabilities can be a strain on any marriage, even with the most stable of relationships. Earle said recently told an interviewer not to lump it with his earlier marriages. It was the only one in 20 years, the only one sober, and the one he worked the hardest at.
February 23, 2015 @ 11:56 pm
Always will be a huge Steve Earle fan and I will pick up this record ASAP, but there’s something about that sample track. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been listening to “Train a’ Comin'” a lot lately or whatever, but that doesn’t even sound like Steve to me. It sounds more like Steve doing a Ray Wylie Hubbard impression. Still, I do look forward to hearing the entire record.
February 24, 2015 @ 9:30 am
The intro and the dramatic spoken word voice remind me of Warrior from The Revolution Starts Now.
February 24, 2015 @ 10:16 am
I recall a scene from the film Ghost World’ where Steve Buscemi is on a date I think, anyway he is at a bar to see this old bluesman who is on stage with nothing but a guitar. The bar is so noisy you can’t really hear him and Buscemi is annoyed, the irony is that this man is the opening act for a white twenty something blues bands called Blueshammer. When they show up all the girls go crazy and his date wants to dance. Instantly the band breaks into the electric guitar heavy song about being a slave and Buscemi leaves.
I find this to very similar to bro-checklists slavery, my baby done me wrong, beer, the devil.
But I don’t think it mean the blues is off limits, Cyndi Lauper of all people put out a very decent blues album on the heels of her stellar jazz album. I understand it can be cheesy or off putting at time (like when every “has been” releases an album of standards) but some people do study the craft and the history and get it right or use their voice to reinterpret the material. Blues singer Janiva Magness comes to mind, she sells every song she sings in my opinion.
February 25, 2015 @ 9:03 am
With all the focus on this album being Steve’s blues album, it didn’t occur to me until today that this is his least overtly political album of originals in a long, long time. Even his last few, which weren’t dominated by politics like Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts Now, had some political or social commentary.
March 8, 2015 @ 2:20 pm
Christ, this is a terrible review. Steve’s always been rooted in blues as much as country.
“There’s only two kinds of music: the blues and zippety doo-dah.” – Townes Van Zandt
January 6, 2016 @ 8:31 am
Late to the party here, Trigger, but I think your review was very well-written. Sorry you got a little abused in the initial comments, but that’s the way it goes with musical artists. They share their lives and struggles with us in their art and almost become like kin, or at the very least extended family and friends. You criticize or insult them, you criticize and insult the fans by proxy. It also doesn’t help that most serious music folks consider their taste to be an extension of who they are, and questioning that taste rarely ever goes over well. It’s like taking at shot at the purest essence of who they are.
I’m a Steve Earle fan, but I don’t love everything the man does, nor do I consider him one of my personal musical heroes. Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t really bothered by this review. The first couple of paragraphs irked me a tad, just by how dismissive you were being, but that’s about it. I think the conversation about authenticity is greatly needed in this age of fabricated “artists” (to be fair, this has always been a part of the entertainment business, but never has it been so visible and the industry so accessible). However, I have to agree with some other commenters here and say that this one struck me as little different from the average Steve Earle record. He might have INTENDED for it to be taken as straight blues, but listening to it back-to-back with his previous efforts shows that he was gradually heading in this direction, not that he dropped his country rock guitar for a weathered acoustic one. None of his other albums have been THIS bluesy, but 2011’s I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive and 2013’s The Low Highway were definitely close.
Regardless, I enjoyed this review just as I enjoyed the album. Didn’t really share your annoyance with “Baby Baby Baby (Baby)”, which was actually one of my favorites for its playful nature, but I understand what you were saying about it. Perhaps he put that one first precisely because he expected questions of authenticity to come up? It’s a lot harder to hate songs that don’t seem to take themselves too seriously or come across as self-indulgent, which might have happened with this record if it were too heavy.
May 2, 2021 @ 11:52 am
Isn’t singing in a voice that isn’t yours considered cultural appropriation by people of Earle’s belief? Typical hypocrisy.