When an artist as prolific and skilled at his craft as Steve Earle leads the way on a genre-based tour as familiar to him as American blues, there’s reason to rejoice. Right down to the album’s very title, a pointed reference to a song by the tragic and influential artist many consider to be the King of the Blues, Robert Johnson, Terraplane is a mesmerizing ride through the swampy sonic lowlands of the Delta, the Appalachian-Piedmont foothills, the big city Chess days of Chicago and nods and tributes to several giants of the form. Earle and the Dukes are relentless on each of the album’s eleven tracks, never coming up for air. Opening with single, “Baby, Baby, Baby(Baby),” supported by a resonate blues harmonica accompaniment worthy of Little Walter, the passion is grounded in century-old traditions with an engaging wink to present time, delivered in the guise of new song gems from Earle while the band motors away like a slow, steady engine.
However, this is not an album that rests on its blues laurels and credentials. The sonic engine never stalls, not once. This Terraplane tour is a reminder that Blues is not one genre but a multi-layered terrain of earth and time. “You’re the Best Lover I Ever Had” grooves like a summit between Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker with lusty lyrics that weave through its dark Delta essence of fulfilled passion. “The Tennessee Kid” tells the story of the familiar mythic crossroad-meeting between the devil and a naïve tortured and tempted musician. The wayward-preacher spoken word narrative gives a nod to Ray Wylie Hubbard as the Robert Johnson story is ignited with new life. “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now,” and “Acquainted with the Wind,” brings in the lighthearted acoustic Piedmont Blues of Mississippi John Hurt while “Better Off Alone,” drips with the bluesy resignation of love lost. “The Usual Time of the Night,” returns to the city blues of Little Walter and latter day Chess-infused Muddy Waters. “Go Go Boots Are Back,” provides some idea as to what Steve Earle might have sounded like had he invaded Hollywood’s Whiskey in the mid-’60s. “Baby’s Just as Mean as Me,” unearths the roots of Bob Wills and Texas Swing.
The final track, “King of the Blues,” a smokey Howlin’ Wolf boogie prowl anchored by a pounding distorted lead guitar streaming and steaming through a lowland blues stomp, ends the journey. Earle vocally and lyrically creates a colorful catholic blues character, a holy, royal incarnation of the sensual power of the universal reach that embodies blues. It remains all that shakes us to the bone and resonates most deeply in our psyche.
This the very experience of Terraplane, a vehicle that takes us through the vast stylistic terrain and consciousness of American blues with one of the finest visionary songwriters of our times.