A few months ago, Steve Earle stopped by Cactus Music for a special in-store performance to promote his latest album, Terraplane. A line stretched around the building, and not everyone around me recognized the Grammy-winning singer and songwriter as he walked by. It wasn't that surprising; toting only a student-style knapsack, politely excusing himself on his way into the store, Earle looked like he had just come from the bus stop up the street.
Until he wound up with a both-barrels rendition of “Copperhead Road,” Earle's 40-minute set was as much a music-history lecture as a performance. Throughout his time onstage, Earle punctuated his songs with asides like how the Moving Sidewalks and Thirteenth Floor Elevators (arguably the two greatest psychedelic-rock bands in Texas history) lived in the same house for eight months; or how “Let Your Hair Hang Down,” from the new album, morphed “from [Howlin' Wolf's] 'Smokestack Lightning' to a Lightnin' [Hopkins] song.”
Earle grew up mostly in San Antonio, and he was only a Houstonian for a few months before moving to Nashville around 1975, but Terraplane brings all his Texas roots right back into the foreground. He befriended his idol and mentor Townes Van Zandt in Houston; another illuminating anecdote he related at Cactus was how Rocky Hill, the late brother of ZZ Top's Dusty Hill and a revered (if somewhat star-crossed) Houston blues musician in his own right, once took the teenage Earle to see flamboyant Irish blues-rock guitar hero Rory Gallagher. But of all the semi-obscure names Earle dropped to the graying Cactus crowd – a sea of beards, fitted ballcaps and khaki shorts – the most important were the late great Texas bluesmen Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb.
The two long-dead men were plenty different, but not that different. Both grew up in rural East central Texas – Hopkins, Centerville; Lipscomb, Navasota – and came of age before the Depression, though Lipscomb was born in 1895 versus 1912 for Hopkins. Both were prolific musicians, writing and recording hundreds of songs, and both lived reasonably long lives; Lipscomb passed away at age 80 and Hopkins at 69. Mance lived his entire life in Grimes County, while Lightnin' lived in Third Ward for decades and earned the nickname “The King of Dowling Street.” But both men recorded some for Arhoolie Records, the folk-music label founded by the German immigrant Chris Strachwicz that helped them reach audiences far beyond East Texas.
“Lightning [was] the kind of guy that had to make his own way, and found out that he could make up songs just like that and people liked to hear them when he'd play them on street corners or buses or whatever,” says Strachwicz in filmmaker Les Blank's 1971 documentary A Well Spent Life. “Mance was very, very different. He was more of a preserver of a catalog of music that he had encounter. He had this kind of ear to memorize songs. Sure, he'd improvise a little bit, but not nearly what Lightnin' did. Lightnin' made up almost almost every song he recorded.”
Both Lipscomb and Hopkins eventually became the toast of the folk-revival circuit in the 1960s and feature prominently in a pair of the late Blank's films, A Well Spent Life and 1970's The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins. Both films helped impart the two bluesmen's vast knowledge and idiosyncratic styles to younger generations of musicians like Earle, who turned 60 two weeks before his Cactus appearance. More to the point, both men's work are a profound influence on Terraplane.
“There’s a Mance thing and a Lightnin’ thing,” Earle told American Songwriter while he was working on Terraplane last fall. “You know, Lightnin’ played with a band whenever he could. Mance didn’t, but I don’t think it was a choice. What Mance really did was he played dance music on one guitar when he first started out. So we did a thing that’s very much Mance, but we did it with a band.”
That synthesis of Hopkins' and Lipscomb's styles, plus some Canned Heat and ZZ Top (“Go-Go Boots are Back”), is largely what makes Terraplane hum. Lipscomb's nimble acoustic finger-picking style marks “You're the Best Lover I Ever Had” and “Gamblin' Blues,” while at Cactus Earle flat-out called the glowering “King of the Blues,” Terraplane's final song, his “Lightnin' tune.” Made in the wake of Earle's separation from his latest wife, singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, its emotions run from happy-go-lucky (“Nobody's Daddy Now”), and despondent (“Better Off Alone”) to outright horny (“The Usual Time”). Busted relationships are the cornerstone of countless blues records, yes, but Earle and the Dukes – featuring native Houstonian Chris Masterson on lead guitar – sink their teeth in especially deep. They cut the album in just six days.
Onstage, on his satellite-radio show Hardcore Troubador Radio, or in his songs, Earle loves making a point, and Terraplane allows him to make yet another one – namely, that modern audiences will still listen to Texas country blues. Since its release in mid-February, the album has become one of the more successful releases of 2015, at least according to the Americana Music Association's airplay chart. (Expect it to do well when the annual AMA Awards nominations are announced this Thursday, too.)
As of this morning, Terraplane was nestled in at No. 8, with about 270 spins last week and more than 6,100 overall. According to this week's Top 40, in fact, it's the second most-played album of the year behind Ryan Bingham's Fear and Saturday Night; the margin between them is currently a razor-thin less than ten spins. Terraplane is also comfortably ahead of the latest releases by Earle's somewhat-peers James McMurtry and Robert Earl Keen, both of which came out at about the same time.
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True, the songs that depart most from the Hopkins-Lipscomb axis could be the most radio-friendly tracks on the album. “The Tennessee Kid” is a plodding Lightnin'-esque grinder, but it's also a kind of spoken-word number where Earle intones some fanciful language to tweak the primal blues myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads – the scenario is a little like “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” too, come to think of it. Duet “My Baby's Just as Mean as Me,” featuring Dukes fiddler and Masterson's wife Eleanor Whitmore, is a sassy little swing tune that sounds like manna for AAA programmers. Hell, “Acquainted With the Wind” bears more than a passing resemblance to Spinal Tap's post-Folksmen single “Gimme Some Money.”
So if Terraplane is Earle's "blues album," it's OK to take that with a grain of salt. But as a Texas blues album, period, it's OK to take Earle at his word too.
“I mean, I'm not saying it's not a Texas blues record,” Earle told Mother Jones last month. “I'm just saying that I didn't set out to make a Texas record.”
Steve Earle & the Dukes perform tonight at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline, with special guests the Mastersons. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.