If it succeeds in doing nothing else, Steve Earle’s The Low Highway solidifies the veteran songsmith’s reputation as one of today’s most steadfast surveyors of life in hard times. Sure, he chooses to chase such trials down rural highways into small towns, only to then stir the ensuing restlessness that prompts the urge to escape. But the vicious cycle that such journeys entail have long triggered some of Earle’s most captivating songs.
The Low Highway doesn’t so much conform to such a thematic scope as extend it. Perhaps the most extreme – and, curiously, most accessible – example is 21st Century Blues, in which Earle depicts a future largely unchanged from the present. At first, his observations seem almost comical (“No man on the moon, no man on Mars. Where the hell is my flyin’ car?”). But deflation quickly sets in when the utopian visions designed by John F. Kennedy and others crumble into cold realities. For Earle, the future is permeated by the self-centered arrogance of today (“It’s head for the hills, every man for himself. Nobody helpin’ out nobody else.”).
It should come as no surprise that the album’s bleak view of the present often resembles the Dust Bowl of America’s past. In fact, The Low Highway’s title tune is ripe with the imagery of Woody Guthrie. Here, the blacktop Earle travels is like a passage through purgatory, a roadside view of a disenfranchised countryside, its inhabitants and its spirits. “The ghost of America (is) watchin’ me through the broken windows of the factory,” Earle sings with a glib drawl. “Naked bones of a better day as I rolled on down the low highway.”
Calico County is a close-up of the decimated America Earle witnesses – specifically, the rural terrain that is a breeding ground for poverty, ignorance and drug-addled ambivalence. Earle spits it all out in verses of Dylan-esque wordplay over a rolling electric groove (“Friday night dogfight suckin’ on a meth pipe”). Burnin’ It Down then brings the grief out of the shadows to confront the ignition of “10 gallons of gas and a bottle of propane” at the epicenter of the antagonist’s symbol of smalltown grief: the local Wal-Mart.
So vivid is the scenery along The Low Highway that you almost forget the efficient roots-driven support that Earle has been provided by the current lineup of his long-running, the Dukes (amended here to the Dukes and Duchesses with the inclusion of wife/keyboardist/singer/songsmith Allison Moorer and fiddler/mandolinist Eleanor Whitmore).
Their playing certainly eases the journey. But when you’re driving through fire, as Earle does for much of The Low Highway, no accommodations can take your eyes off the flames surrounding you.