Alt-country singer-guitarist Steve Earle isn’t an ethnomusicologist but he could certainly pass as one. In describing “The Tennessee Kid,” a bluesy, stream-of-consciousness track that finds him sounding like a man possessed as he sings in a raspy voice about Lucifer and the crossroads, Earle reveals his deep understanding of American roots. One of many blues-inspired numbers on Earle’s new album, Terraplane
, the song has a real intensity to it.
“It’s a spoken word piece in iambic pentameter,” says Earle via phone from a Boise tour stop. “I wanted something that was in that interpretation of John Lee Hooker with a psychedelic edge. Musically, I knew I was going to do a boogie of some sort. I’ve done it before. I had a boogie on The Hard Way
. There’s a song called ‘West Nashville Boogie.’ A lot of people see ‘The Tennessee Kid’ as [ZZ Top’s] ‘La Grange’ and I don’t. I see it as [John Lee Hooker’s] ‘Boom Boom.’”
Earle then goes on to explain the legendary story of how blues great Robert Johnson went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil, so he could achieve success. For him, the tale connects to Terraplane
“The whole point of this record is that it was [blues singer-guitarist] Son House who said that Robert Johnson went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil,” says Earle, who’s backed by his longtime band the Dukes on the disc. “That’s the first person who ever said that and he was jealous. The truth is that Robert Johnson wasn’t important because he played guitar better than everyone else. Several guitar players were as good as he was. Skip James was arguably as good. Son House was at least in the ballpark. What made Robert Johnson special was the songs. There are no songs he borrowed from.”
Earle does a bit of borrowing on his own on Terraplane
. The rollicking “Go Go Boots are Back” channels ZZ Top, and there’s a bit of everything on the record, including Texas roadhouse blues (“Baby Baby Baby (Baby),” acoustic country blues (“Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now”) and Chicago blues (“The Usual Time”) on the disc.
“I got to the blues by way of ZZ Top and Canned Heat because I was in Texas and I was the age that I was,” says Earle, 60. “Everybody else did too. It was younger white musicians rediscovering this stuff that caused us to rediscover Muddy Waters and B.B. King. They had careers that they probably never would have never had if the Civil Rights Movement hadn’t happened and pop music hadn’t become a form of art and people become interested in it as a sociological statement. All of a sudden, the blues becomes important to it. It’s also a component of rock ’n’ roll. Maybe the most important component of rock ’n’ roll. The first concert I ever saw was the Beatles when I was 10. The second concert was Canned Heat.”
He doesn’t necessarily see the album as a tribute or even an homage.
“The blues has always been a component of what I do and I just wanted to concentrate on it, just like I made a bluegrass record,” he says. “Bluegrass has always influenced what I do. I’m a big bluegrass fan. It’s the same with the blues. I write a lot of different kinds of songs. It’s like working with a 32-color box of crayons for a long time and then limiting yourself to eight. Sometimes limiting yourself to certain parameters can make you work harder and dig deeper.”
The album was recorded in Nashville by Ray Kennedy and produced by R.S. Field. To hear Earle tell it, the sessions were pretty stripped down.
“The studio was a shotgun shack that has been picked up and moved from Memphis to Nashville,” he says. “It’s the Studio D there. I like the room. Ray Kennedy had worked there and he and R.S. Field both suggested it. I still have a house [in Nashville], so I can stay there for free. It’s hard for me to make a record cheaper than I can make it Nashville. If I fly my whole band to New York, I’ve automatically got a way more expensive record.”
There are no vocals overdubs on the record. The only overdubs are guest Chris Masterson’s guitar solos.
Earle counts many of blues contemporary players as friends so when they come to see the current show, which emphasizes material from the new album, he knows it’ll be a good test to see if he got it right.
“The moment of truth comes in three days because I just got an email from [blues harmonica player] Charlie Musslewhite saying he was looking forward to seeing the show,” he says. “I know [the Fabulous Thunderbirds’] Jimmie Vaughan. I know [ZZ Top’s] Billy Gibbons. If anybody doesn’t think Billy Gibbons is a bluesman, they’re not paying attention. I know all the modern practitioners. The moment of truth is coming. I’m going to run into all of them at one point or another this summer.”
Steve Earle & the Dukes, The Mastersons, 8 p.m. Sunday, July 5, and Monday, July 6, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $38 ADV, $42 DOS, musicboxcle.com