Steve Earle‘s old friend has always been the blues, but never has the prolific and mercurial songwriter released a quote unquote blues album. But that will change on February 17 with the arrival of Terraplane Blues, an album that takes its name from the Robert Johnson song about fast cars and even faster women.
Earle, who currently resides in New York City, cut the record this fall in Nashville at House of Blues studios over a 6-day stretch with his band the Dukes. It’s a bit of a breakup album, he says, what with it coming on the heels of his recent split with singer-songwriter Allison Moorer. Terraplane is a raw and dirty affair sonically, and moves from acoustic East Texas blues numbers to boogie-rock to early Stones-type ballads, with one spoken-word piece in iambic pentameter thrown in for good measure. The record was produced by R.S. Field and is being released by New West Records.
We hung out with Earle in the studio and chatted about the album, and a host of other topics, including the Shakespeare authorship controversy, where Elvis really learned how to “shake it,” and why Earle’s writing songs for ABC’s Nashville. Also, you can listen to a stream of “You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had” below, a song that takes its inspiration from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smoke Stack Lightning.”
Earle will also host his second annual songwriting camp, Camp Copperhead, next summer in Big Indian, New York, from July 20-July 24. Go here for more information and check out our report on last summer’s camp here.
Terraplane Blues track listing:
1. Baby Baby Baby (Baby)
2. You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had
3. The Tennessee Kid
4. Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now
5. Better Off Alone
6. The Usual Time
7. Go Go Boots Are Back
8. Acquainted With The Wind
9. Baby’s Just As Mean As Me
10. Gamblin’ Blues
11. King Of The Blues
So how long have you been thinking about making a blues album?
For a while. I’d thought about doing it at some point as long as seven or eight years ago. I basically had a couple of things going. I wrote some songs that aren’t on this record, and they were sort of headed in one direction, and then the blues songs started to come along. And I don’t know why, but I decided that I’d make a blues record and then I’d make a country record, so that’s what I’m going to do. The country record’s like half-written. And some of the stuff [on the country record] I wrote for Nashville, just because T-Bone [Burnett] asked me to.
The TV show?
Now when I think of Steve Earle making a blues album, I think of the Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins kind of stuff.
That’s there, but I decided on the Mance thing – there’s a Mance thing and a Lightnin’ thing. You know, Lightnin’ played with a band whenever he could. Mance didn’t, but I don’t think it was a choice. What Mance really did was he played dance music on one guitar when he first started out. So we did a thing that’s very much Mance, but we did it with a band. It’s all acoustic. You know, I’m playing guitar and Chris [Masterson] was playing a baritone resonator. I think that’s what he’s playing. We’ll get drums on it, and upright bass. It’s very much the kind of thing Mance did, the sort of in-between blues and ragtime. I mean, there’s no such thing as between blues and ragtime. There are people that, most of them wearing bowling shirts, will probably listen to this record and say that some of it’s not the blues. But they would be mistaken.
And “Tipitina” is the blues. It’s the 16-bar blues. And pre-war “St. James Infirmary” is the blues. So that stuff’s included. There’s a boogie. I chose Canned Heat rather than ZZ Top for that path. But there’s one song that’s based on the fact that I very much believe, for me, where I come from, the first two ZZ Top records are blues records. And that one track that rocks pretty hard is kind of from that.
So is “Terraplane Blues” your favorite Robert Johnson tune?
No, my favorite Robert Johnson tune is probably “From Four Until Late.” “Terraplane” just seemed like a good title. It’s a car. It’s a fast car. I’ve never wanted to learn how to play “Terraplane,” and I don’t know for sure if I will do it. I’m trying to figure if I can do it. It’s a hard song to sing, so I gotta find some version of it that works for me. [If I do record it], it’ll be an extra track. You have to have an extra track or two.