The spirit of Woody Guthrie lives on inside Steve Earle’s giant heart.
New West Records, 2013
8.0 / 10.0
If you have any familiarity at all with my writing here at Earbuddy, you probably know that Steve Earle is one of my favorite songwriters not just living, but in all of history. Born in Virginia and raised in San Antonio, Steve Earle has spent the last four decades amassing one of the greatest collections of songs any one person has put together. Since his debut with Guitar Town in 1986, Earle has not only created 15 amazing LPs, but become a celebrated author, political activist, and actor, all the while surviving through a life-threatening (and public) battle with addiction. Altogether, this is the kind of career that deserves respect and deference. He’s the kind of man who demands it. Yet, with his newest and 15th LP The Low Highway, Steve Earle sounds just as inspired and hungry as if this was his first record.
Over recent years, there have been more than a few attempts by artists to take the mantle of Woody Guthrie as the voice of the downtrodden. We’ve heard it from recent works by Bruce Springsteen, Bill Bragg, and Bhi Bhiman. There’s good reason for it too. Guthrie is part of the American music identity and his voice left an indelible mark on a portion of American history that saw the working poor standing in bread lines while the nation was marching to foreign war. Sound familiar? With The Low Highway, Steve Earle establishes himself as the most analogous artist we have to the legacy of Woody Guthrie. Earle succeeds where others fail because he plainly follows Guthrie’s Golden Rule: “All you can write is what you see.”
This argument hinges largely on the concept of ‘authenticity’. Many scoff at the idea that any piece of music could be in-authentic (or that it would ever be anything other than a manufactured representation). Nonetheless, I would like any of those people to take Earle’s work against something from Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball and tell me that authentic isn’t the correct word to use. Regardless of whether or not these are stories that Earle has experienced himself (though any basic biography tells us he definitely has), they are made authentic by the fact that they express the same emotions and images that I have felt and seen in today’s America. Where pretenders to the throne tend to write in high-minded ideals and clichés, Earle just tells the story and allows the listener to draw their own ideal. It’s a subtle difference, but one the delivers a huge impact on the material.
Seen the ghost of America watchin’ me
Through the broken windows of the factories
-Steve Earle, “The Low Highway”
Earle’s reflections about this mid-recession America are everywhere on The Low Highway. Whether he’s talking about corporate control (“Burnin’ it Down”), living in recovery (“Pocket Full of Rain”), meth abuse in rural America (“Calico County”), the homeless population (“Invisible”), or his frustration with the failed promise of American community (“21st Century Blues”), the message is delivered with the precisions of a hitman. However, while Earle’s social commentary will likely be the most discussed aspect of Low Highway, I find it’s more heartfelt moments the most compelling. No one plays desolation in a ballad like Steve Earle and the proof is here with tracks like “After Mardi Gras” and particularly “Remember Me”. This closing track is a plea from father to son that escapes description without producing tears.
I find it hard to name a person, let alone musician, that I respect more than Steve Earle. The idea of an artist being completely honest with their audience may an unfair standard, but it is one that he meets with every single song. Earle’s heart and mind are clearly visible with every word and note on The Low Highway. I don’t know if it makes sense to christen anyone as the voice of American music. That being said, Steve Earle is my voice in American music. As such, The Low Highway is one of the easiest recommendations I’ll be able to make in 2013.
“The Low Highway”
“After Mardi Gras”
“Down the Road, Pt. II”