Steve Earle – The Low Highway

New West Records

New West Records

Steve Earle wastes no time in getting things rolling on The Low Highway: the title song features Kelley Looney’s easy-loping bass counting ‘em off while Chris Masterson’s pedal steel soars and moans like a semi rolling by. “Travelin’ out on the low highway/Three thousand miles to the ‘Frisco bay,” sings Earle, his observations of the land and people he’s witnessed through his windshield a combination of Sal Paradise and Woody Guthrie. It’s the perfect way to launch the album’s themes of movement/restlessness/loneliness and, ultimately, the discovery of love and contentment.

Earle’s companions for this journey are The Dukes (Looney, whose presence dates back to the Copperhead Road days; Masterson on guitar and pedal steel; Will Rigby on drums) and The Duchesses: Earle’s wife Allison Moorer on keys and vocals; Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle and mandolin; and Siobhan Kennedy on vocals. Earle has put together some great recording ensembles over the years, from the original Dukes lineup of the late ‘80s to the Del McCoury Band for 1999’s The Mountain. The Dukes and Duchesses are the ideal roadmates for the twists and turns of The Low Highway. They easily shift gears from the reflective acoustic chug of the opener to the wild-ass fishtail of “Calico County”. The guitars are as rough and raw as Earle’s vocal:

Half a case of cold pills soakin’ in a milk jug
Hydrochloric acid iodine and phosphorous
Careful not to get any on ya when you shake it up
That’s the way we cook it up in Calico County

Things slam into a string-bending bridge at the 1:16 mark, but for the bulk of the song the band follows Rigby’s groove, banging the main riff out with the bass bumping along beneath it all like a bent tailpipe dragging on a dirt road.

Steve Earle

Steve Earle

Other cuts aren’t as obvious in their intention, but are all the more intense for that very fact. If you were half-listening to the melody of “Burnin’ It Down” from the other room, you might peg it as a love song. Which it is, of sorts – testament of a grown man’s love for a town he left as a boy and can never return to, as it’s changed irrevocably. “Nothin’s ever gonna be the same in this town,” sings Earle, his character sitting in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart – “half a mile from where I grew up” – and thinking about burning it down. Earle’s delivery is gentle; the end result is terrifying.

But there are many more stops along the road: “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way” zippity-doo-dahs its way along like a 1940s-vintage pop song, with Whitmore’s fiddle combining Stephane Grappelli’s fluidity with Scarlet Rivera’s wild-but-dead-on abandon. “Pocket Full Of Rain” rides on the shoulders of a jazzy piano with Masterson throwing in a few moments of well-muzzled guitar roar late in the tune.

“After Mardi Gras” and “Invisible” are full of honest reflections. In the former, the singer has much – too much – to deal with; “But I can’t bother with it all/Until after Mardi Gras,” he declares. And though Earle’s vocal nails the ache of being “Invisible”, it’s the song’s simmering fiddle-morphing-into-pedal-steel break that seals the deal.

Click HERE to read the rest of my review of Steve Earle’s The Low Highway on Jambands.com

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