Better Off Alone?

Given his catalog of original tunes, Steve Earle never has to prove that he’s a genius songwriter. Or that he can single-handedly create a new genre; or be a fresh, creative gale blowing through someplace as hidebound as 1980s Nashville. To say nothing of his inestimable talents in raising hell, marrying women or today, being the latest, ummm, folk singing sage to haunt Greenwich Village.

In fact, like all successful songwriters—and make no mistake, before anything else, artistic or personal, good or bad, the man can write songs—Earle is now fighting age (not so hungry), ideas (running low on good ones) and the glories of his own songwriting catalog. Songs as great as “Fearless Heart” or “My Old Friend The Blues,” make topping yourself a very tall order. And no creative artist can continue to operate at the high level that Earle maintained from his debut,1986’s Guitar Town to 2000’s Transcendental Blues.

While his repeated use of illustrator Tony Fitzpatrick for album cover art implies a certain unity among his records since 2000, Earle’s catalog has been all over the place in recent years: a record of covers of tunes written by his departed pal Townes Van Zandt (Townes) followed by an album of songs about Hank Williams-inspired mortality (I’ll Never Get Out of the World Alive), his best record in many years (The Low Highway) and now a blues record, Terraplane. Through it all, even long time fans are having trouble escaping the feeling that Earle is having difficulty finding something worth saying. Even his sure hand with a melodic hook has grown a little shaky.

With Terraplane he’s made what he and his label are calling his “Texas Blues Record.” While there are bluesy tunes and too damned many clichéd lyrics about turning lamps down low, the ramblin’ kind and “Satan, Mephistopheles, Beelzebub,” this is another Steve Earle folk rock record. As usual, Earle wrote all the songs and they are nothing less than immaculately crafted and tuneful. His band of longtime bassist Kelly Looney, drummer Will Rigby and guitarist Chris Masterson provide expert support. And Earle’s voice is appropriately low down and conspiratorial as befits deals with the devil and ruminating about dirty sex.

And yet there are no ringers here, no pop tunes, none of the anthems or irresistible hooks that make Earle’s songwriting catalog so wonderful. Perhaps anticipating questions about why a blues record, he ends the album’s liner notes with, “And it’s time. Hell, everybody’s sick of all my fucking happy songs anyway."

While I beg to differ, both that he ever really had any joyous numbers and that anybody is sick of hearing his sweet ‘n’ sour classics like “Someday,” or “Copperhead Road,” this record has loads of grit and gristle and flashes of greatness. The talking blues, “The Tennessee Kid,” is wordy and fun. “You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had,” sounds like Earle recycling riffs and ideas from his own canon. “Go Go Boots Are Back” is the album’s Stonesy-flavored midtempo rocker. “Acquainted with the Wind,” is a rousing number with a fiddle, which uses a familiar rhythmic pattern that’s clearly a nod to John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” a tune that was covered by The Animals and served as the basis for Spinal Tap’s “Gimme Some Money.”

At the heart of much of Earle’s best songwriting is his confessional, heart-on-his-sleeve impulse, which often mixes regret with testosterone-fueled denial. While he couldn’t have failed to understand the point of his son Justin’s new record Absent Fathers, it’s his recent divorce from Allison Moorer, his 7th if you’re counting, that is the shadow inside this album. In a press release for the new album Earle himself said: "Everyone talks about how many times I’ve been married. They don’t talk about how many times I’ve been divorced, maybe that’s what this record is about." A pair of songs hover around this life changer, “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now” and “Better Off Alone.” Taken together they mix machismo like “Used to have a woman/Worry me to death/Hand was in my pocket/And her foot was on my neck”” (“Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now”) with more painful truth-telling, “And though/I taught you everything you know/I learned a thing or two myself and so/I’m gonna miss you when you’re gone/But I’m better off alone.”

Being alone has given Earle the time to become involved in a number of projects including an upcoming memoir, I Can’t Remember If We Said Goodbye and a pair of upcoming films The World Made Straight and Dixieland. Produced by R.S. Field and recorded by Ray Kennedy at House Of Blues Studio D in Nashville, Terraplane comes in MP3, vinyl and CD, though the deluxe CD/DVD edition has an especially fine sounding 24/88.2 mix of the entire album as a bonus track.

Blues records usually mark an artist out of ideas, biding time. And while that’s certainly true to some degree here, there is also an artist fighting personal ills and struggling with what makes the blues such a timeless expression.

Bkhuna's picture

Nashville isn't hindbound to the 1980s.

It's morphed into an entirely new stratosphere of crap.

Jello and Mojo's words were never more relevant than today.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

"New stratosphere of crap" ... too funny, too true.

And yet of the tunes I download these days, country is the #1 genre, but mostly tunes 10 years and older (Webb Pierce, Louvin Bros., Patty Loveless, Ray Price) or stuff on the fringe (Stacie Collins, Tift Merritt, Cody Jinx, Hank III).

Hear Earle occasionally on Outlaw Country, SiriusXM, where he's got his own show. He's a cretin, full of attitude (a self-avowed Commie/socialist) and ignorance (for example, made gross misstatements about Jimmy Reed and VJay Records, when he featured them). He belongs to the establishment "indie" crowd, along with the likes of Buddy & Julie Miller, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lucinda Williams, etc., with which he shares a distinct inability to write a melody or sing.

dalethorn's picture

I've read plenty of stories about how "Nashville" has tried to pull away from hillbilly music (or whatever they find too earthy for them), but it's quite another thing to experience it up close. I was attending country music shows at WWVA until circa 1980, when there was a dramatic shift to pop or crossover music. I realize that there's a bigger world of many genres to go to when a favorite genre is being sabotaged, destroyed, or even merely diminished by miscreants at the Big Console in Nashville, but still, I wonder at who has the power to make such noticeable and sweeping changes. I was astonished around the same time at the nearly sudden demise of disco, which I was warming up to, and 20-plus years later I read the explanation in the liner notes of a Rhino disco compilation CD: According to the notes, disco was being more-or-less overtaken by "women, blacks, and gays" - i.e. minorities, and so the umbilical cords were cut and disco died quickly.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

In 1979 there was a "Disco Demolition" night at Chicago's Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox, in which a crate filled with disco records was blown up. The humor of this is obvious. Perhaps one forgets how ubiquitous disco was back then. It was common to see "Disco Sucks" T-shirts. Disco represented a definite degradation of pop music, away from live bands to numbingly repetitive, mechanized music programmed by "DJs." Disco died a none-too-soon natural death. Unfortunately, it has been replaced by even more mechanized techno.

As for Nashville going pop, I respectfully refer one to Hank III's song "Dick in Dixie" on the superb "Straight to Hell" album, which carries the "Parental Advisory Explicit Content" label, in case anyone should wonder what the "Dick" in the title refers to.

Commercial Nashville has exploited non-hillbilly shmaltz from its inception, going at least as far back as the 1950s. It sure ain't new.

dalethorn's picture

Yes, I see what you mean by degradation of pop music. Women, blacks, and gays. Rhino said it best.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Don't twist my words. That's not what I said. "Women, blacks and gays" have nothing to do with it. Don't play that politically correct feminsta race card. Disco sucked strictly on lack of musical merit, just like punk and hip hop/rap. Just like Madonna, Michael Jackson, Kanye West, Beyonce and Taylor Swift. Lack of music quality and taste, not political incorrectness or racism, is the problem.

dcolak's picture

Joy Division, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Sound, Mogwai beg to differ and I agree with them :-))

Punk's not dead, it just evolved.

Check out Mexican band Hocico. Punk's most certainly not dead. :-)

Even disco is alive and well. Drop the bassssss! I like it.

corrective_unconscious's picture

"Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will," is one of the great album titles, and is a great epigram, but that album is closer to easy listening than it is to punk, imo.

(I hit the correct "reply" button the first time. The nesting feature doesn't work in my browser. It's annoying. This will be my last attempt to get my post in the right place.)

dcolak's picture

I'm afraid 99% of the listeners would run away on the first of many Mogwai's crescendos. :-))

For some reason one wants to listen to Mogwai loud even knowing crescendo is waiting just around corner. The dynamic range of Mogwai recordings is sometimes too big. :-))

Check out Hocico, if that's not punk dunno what is.

Thank god we have Spotify! :-)

corrective_unconscious's picture

It's sort of binary - it's loud or the song has ended. Or someone has OD'ed and dropped off the stage.

Mogwai is often labeled as queercore in general publications, and I can go with that. It does not sound like punk to me.

corrective_unconscious's picture


Osgood Crinkly III's picture

As far as I'm concerned the nails in the coffin of pop music are:

1. Disco
2. Music videos
3. Punk
4. Rap/Hip Hop
5. Digital/Midi

dalethorn's picture

When I read these kinds of uninformed dismissals, I fire up a copy of Suicidal Tendencies' Institutionalized, just to prove the world is still turning past the grumpy old men who don't get it.

dcolak's picture

don't be possessed to skate! :-D

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

I was a DJ & producer on the nation's premier, pioneer punk station, which involved forcing back waves of nausea. Then it turned to rap/hip hop, and the waves of nausea only got worse. "Suicidal Tendencies"? [flame deleted by John Atkinson]

dalethorn's picture

I'm not a grumpy old man. I love punk and disco as much as I love Bruckner and Berlioz. But I understand that some people aren't flexible.