Steve Earle has one of those careers for which it's hard to imagine any up-and-coming artist carrying the torch. He's defied pretty much everything you might expect out of a guy from Texas with a trucker beard, who plays rock and roll through a deep, grumbly twang.
He kicked the liquor habit 19 years ago. He's a proud father of an autistic son who advocates for justice for all people. He digs women's rights and is such an ardent socialist, he's been known to take personal offense when he hears people describe our current president as one. What's more, he's found some magical formula for writing preaching-to-the-choir folk songs in a way that's palatable for much of the outlaw country crowd - an audience generally averse to any mention of politics in song.
And, where some performers are happy to give it all up to god, Earle gives it all up to Townes, Bob, and Woody.
This night, he showed up with his band - the Dukes & Duchesses - to use his celebrity for a coal-free future. I'm not sure how many people at the concert came in support of clean alternatives to coal. After all, despite Asheville's remarkably progressive citizenry, we remain in the heart of Southern Appalachia. This isn't a coal town, so much as it is a town that benefits from the coal industry. Plenty of folks in this city are committed to changing that, but we've got a state legislature that believes differently than we do on this issue - and, for that matter, many others. But, I digress.
Earle took the stage after a performance from his guitar-and-fiddle section, also known as the freakishly talented husband-and-wife duo, the Mastersons. Someone from the Beyond Coal campaign urged the audience to sign a petition via text message, and then Earle got onstage and unleashed the rock and roll.
He opened with "The Low Highway" before pouring his entire spirit into a remarkable and biting delivery of "21st Century Blues." It wasn't all about the new album, though, as he pulled out all the hits, from "Copperhead Road" to "Galway Girl." He sat behind a Nord synthesizer to deliver a song he played on piano. He blamed the piano attempt (which he pretty much nailed) on spending too much time in New Orleans where, he says, if you hang out long enough, you start to believe deep in your heart that you need to play piano. That kicked off a mini-set of songs aimed at the preservation of New Orleans, including one of the night's major highlights: "This City" (made famous by the hit TV show Treme).
He commended Asheville's progressivism throughout the show, a fitting tribute to a crowd gathered by energy activists, noting he was impressed at how far he had to drive in this city before he hit a Walmart. The crowd was clearly proud of that fact as well.
He also moved out of the way for each member of his band to deliver their own original song, showcasing the incredible talent by which he's been surrounded for the past few decades.
I've seen Earle several times and have always much preferred him as a solo act, but this night he showed just why and how he and the Dukes and Duchesses are hailed as giants in the alt-country world, such as it is these days. The bottom line is, nobody does it quite like Steve Earle. Here's hoping we get three more good decades of all that.
photo by Amos Perrine