On the randy, low-flying Stones-evoking “Go Go Boots Are Back,” Steve Earle scrapes the same guttural rock ‘n’ roll that made “Copperhead Road” so compelling. But as raw and guitar-stung as “Boots” is, Terraplane is a work of many textures.
Like The Mountain, Earle’s bluegrass project, this collection grounds in a single genre. Focusing on Texas and Chicago blues, Terraplane is a loose-grooved exhumation of Lightin’ Hopkins, Freddie King and Mance Lipscomb, artists Earle grew up on in San Antonio.
From the harmonica bleat on the swaggering “Baby Baby Baby (Baby)” to the jaunty “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now,” Earle plumbs the carnal underpinnings of the blues: feasting on what can be, never mourning what’s done. It is frisky, with musicians thumping and plucking in what feels almost like a jam.
Only “Better Off Alone,” a reckoning ballad that embraces the clear-eyed romantic depths he’s always explored, is somber. Producer R.S. Field keeps the track stark, allowing Earle’s ragged edges vocally and Chris Masterson’s electric guitar vamp to do the heavy emotional lifting. Equally stunning is the minor key spoken blues “The Tennessee Kid,” which drawls through a Robert Johnson soul sold at the crossroads tale. Enough brio to face the devil, there’s swagger—and there’s snake oil—in the name of the Faustian bargain.
For the most part, though, Earle keeps it juicy. His duet with Eleanor Whitmore, spiced with old time fiddle, is pure teeter-totter tit-for-tat as her vinegar-and-honey sass spikes “Baby’s Just As Mean As Me” with an old Hollywood movie musical chemistry.
For Earle, who’s made a career out of straddling lines, blurring genres and chronicling outliers, Terraplane is an easy concept. As a Texas kid on the folk circuit, the homage is obvious if unexpected, yet the ability to not take it overly clinical may be the best tribute the Grammy winner can provide.
This is not a Smithsonian survey course in an indigenous American roots form. Yes, Earle sought to craft a cohesive album working in the blues idiomatics, but he also sought to evoke the erotic thrust, the machismo and muscular musicality of the oeuvre as much as cling to the hard definitions.
“King of the Blues” offers a final benediction: a picture of a man who can’t find a love he can’t lose. For Earle, the blues may come from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” evoked on “You’re The Best Lover I’ve Ever Had,” but they’re also endemic in the state of mind that is real life lived in full in spite of it all.