West Texas, a Road Map and Steve Earle
Just about this time of year – mid-June – some years ago, I found myself on the endless flat plains of west Texas. The one lane country road that I drove on passed by sporadic grain fields and less-sporadic livestock ranches. Every now and again, I would look into the distance and see the rhythm of petroleum rigs keeping Earth’s slow beat as they bobbed in and out of the ground.
For the most part, though, the two months that I had spent in the remote part of the great state of Texas were solitary ones. I was promoting country music tours for Country Music Television and me, along with my handy CMT-sanctioned F-150 pickup truck and now-dated paper map, made our way all together through small towns to give radio interviews, listen to young artists and enjoy hearty steak dinners with regional sponsors in the rusty, dusty, rural market on the Amarillo-Lubbuck-Midland-Odessa route.
All of this is to say that those could have been lonely days had it not been for Steve Earle, whose Transcendental Blues album had come out just a few years before. For years, I had known of Steve Earle from somewhat of a distance – I had heard Guitar Town and Copperhead Road when I delved into the alt-country music catalog of the mid-1990s as a teenager. I liked his voice – his growl. I liked how the music was a little bit country, but it had something else to it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on when I heard more of Steve’s songs played on the legendary WFUV in New York City. Years later, I would learn that this was Texas music.
I’m still not entirely sure what Texas music really is. I imagine that just as barbeque has its regional culture with different spices and identities, though at its base, it’s always rooted in meat and tomato sauce, so follows the sub-cultural distinctions of Americana music. And, while I may not be able to define the intricacies that make up the subtleties of Texas music, I can try to speak to what Steve Earle’s Transcendental “Texas” Blues represented to me during a certain time and place. I had never heard such one-time Texas music mixed with Eastern pulses in the way that the title track on that album does. This was a whole new sound for me and it didn’t need to transport me anyplace other than where I was: the desolate roads of west Texas. It was haunting, inviting and it told stories beyond any reality that I had ever known.
On those dark nights driving south on Route 27, with the muggy air blowing through my rolled-down window and moths catching their deaths from headlight paralysis, I devoured Steve’s themes of redemption, salvation, forgiveness, companionship, love, heartache, moral struggling and nomadic rambling woven through the 15 songs on Transcendental Blues. “Steve’s Last Ramble” was reserved for the particularly late night soundtrack when I needed to stay awake the most – that was when the window came all the way down, the radio turned all the way up and I sang with mighty abandon for the audience of ghosts walking along on the side roads and harvesting their midnight grain in the fields.
Since then, of course, Steve has gone on to write and record 5 more albums – all beautiful and significant in their own way (and all of which merit their own reviews). This past weekend, however, I picked up a paperback version of Steve’s novel, I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive and, as I was stuck on a powerless Long Island Railroad train, I read the fictional tales of Doc Ebersole dragging himself around San Antonio accompanied and haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams, to whom Doc had administered a final, lethal shot of morphine in 1953.
Stranded somewhere just inside the borough limits of industrial Queens, I followed a cast of characters – led by Doc, himself, and Big Manny, a six foot, 5 inches, two-hundred and eighty-five pound drug dealer – back onto the deserted roads of Texas, a little bit outside of local law enforcement limits, but not too far from justice’s reach. I cued up Transcendental Blues on my iPod and put on the most appropriate soundtrack that I could think of to accompany these fallen characters on their journeys in search of whatever it was that they were looking for. I thought about the ghosts whom I had envisioned walking in the darkness on Route 27 years before, and I could only hope that Doc Ebersole and Hank Sr. were among them and chuckled when they heard me sing terribly off-key: “I have always been the travelin’ kind, a million miles behind me now. I kept on followin’ that thin white line, but now I want to turn around,” as that black Ford pickup kicked up a stream of dust while I drove passed Seminole, Texas.
So, maybe that’s what I’ve come to understand Texas music and Texas literature to be: it’s simply Steve Earle. It’s a pipe-smoking, poetic, outlaw’s ability to allow us to all to feel just a little bit tougher, a little bit freer and a little bit more adventurous than we really are – at least for one rotation of an album and 17 chapters of a novel.