The enormously talented (14 Grammy nominations, three awards) and prodigiously productive (The Low Highway is his 15th studio album, in addition to acting, writing novels, and political activism) singer-songwriter Steve Earle is no stranger to the road. In fact, his touring will bring him to San Diego (at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach) on October 9. The Low Highway is mainly about the road and the lonesome pilgrims with whom he feels kinship. Earle’s songs (he penned ten and co-wrote two with Lucia Micarelli) are – although gritty, bleak, and full of despair – also well-crafted and richly-rendered (recorded with his live band, the Dukes , which includes his wife, Allison Moorer). Earle acknowledges in the liner notes the irony that these days he is an “upscale gypsy, flying first class or rolling down the highway in a three quarter of a million dollar bus,” rather than hitchhiking. But he still feels the pain of the forsaken and dispossessed.
The title track is a travelogue by a lost soul surveying the empty houses, dead end streets, broken windows, and soup kitchen lines of a wasteland crying out for justice and peace – a bit overwrought even if the lyrics are spare. “Calico County” continues the dark theme with a tale of rural decay, a community plagued with drug abuse, criminality, and broken families. “Burnin’ It Down” features small town ennui fueling arson fantasies by a resident disgruntled about the local Wal-Mart. “That All You Got?” is a New Orleans-inspired rumination about the fickle nature of hurricanes. “Love’s Going to Blow My Way” laments loneliness and hopelessness. “After Mardis Gras” is about forgetting life’s disappointments while partying at Mardis Gras.
The gloom continues with “Pocket Full of Rain,” about a recovering addict reflecting on the mixed blessings of sobriety, and “Invisible,” an elegy to a homeless beggar being ignored by passersby. The tone turns more upbeat on the last four tracks. “Warren Hellman’s Banjo” is a tribute to the founder of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, a titan of commerce who had a passion for bluegrass music (and was a decent banjo picker). “Down the Road Pt. II” explores the theme of restlessness with a shout out to Kerouac and Guthrie. “21st Century Blues” is the closest thing on the album to a funny song, with a lament that the new millennium “ain’t as cool as I hoped it’d be.” Earle asks “Where the hell is my flying car?” as promised in the magazine Popular Science 50 years ago. The album closes with “Remember Me,” a poignant plea by a father looking at his young son and reflecting on the fact that he will die first, perhaps before the son is fully grown. He wonders how his son will remember their time together.
The lyrics are crisp, the melodies are fine, and the arrangements are tight. Earle is a supremely gifted balladeer, at the top of his game.
Steve Earle is profiled this month.