04/16/2013 07:57 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Steve Earle, Our Woody Guthrie, Takes Our Pulse On Low Highway

The head of a New York-based arts organization recently asked me to suggest a musician who might perform a few songs at its annual benefit.

I recommended Steve Earle.

For several reasons. He has a new CD. He's a mesmerizing, charismatic presence. And in live performance -- let's just say you would not want to be sitting in the front row, drunk, with the mad idea that it would be cool to heckle this guy.

In short: a dream of a suggestion.

It was quickly rejected.

"The feeling of my colleagues is: We'd like someone more ... literary," I was told.

Excuse me? Steve Earle is a folk poet with a world-class reputation -- he's the successor to Woody Guthrie, with 15 CDs in his catalogue. And he's omni-talented: He's written a novel, stories and a memoir.

Not literary? Oh, I understand. That's code for: He sports a bin Laden beard, dresses in jeans and flannel shirts, and finds four-letter words suitable for all occasions. He's an actor... in Treme, the HBO show set in New Orleans. And he's been married a stunning seven times. ("You can't say I lack commitment," he jokes.)

No, not literary like, say, Leonard Cohen. To steal his phrase, he's a "hard core troubadour." And The Low Highway is the latest chapter of that story.

Here's Steve Earle talking about his America, the inspiration for his new CD:

I've been on every interstate highway in the lower forty-eight states by now and I never get tired of the view. I've seen a pretty good chunk of the world and my well-worn passport is one of my most prized possessions, but for me, there's still nothing like the first night of a North American tour: everybody, band and crew, crowded up in the front lounge, eating Nashville hot chicken and Betty Herbert's homemade pimento cheese, swapping the same tired old war stories half shouted over the rattle and hum of the highway. And I'm always the last one to holler good night to Charlie Quick, the driver, and climb in my bunk because to me it feels like Christmas Eve long ago when I still believed in Santa Claus. God I love this.

"Nashville hot chicken and Betty Herbert's homemade pimento cheese" -- you get the idea. This is a guy with stories. And a wish to tell them. And right from the start -- you can read my take on Guitar Town, his first CD -- he had the ability to tell them with blunt eloquence.

Consider "Invisible." No one but Steve Earle writes songs as wrenching as this -- and then decides this kind of music should be the first single from his CD:

Or this little ditty about burning Wal-Mart down:

There are fans who look to Steve Earle for his willingness to urge progressives to the barricades. They'll love Low Highway. But that's not to say agitprop is his goal. His greater skill is to look hard at where we are -- an empire being run into the ground by fools and thugs -- and still see hope for people of intelligence and good will.

As, for example, in the title song:

And just for those who are new to Steve Earle, a song from the past. He wrote it in jail, when he was finally allowed to have his guitar. He sings it here with Emmylou Harris, and if you don't think it's on the far side of gorgeous, I beg you to tell me what is.

For Steve Earle's tour schedule, click here.

[Cross-posted from ]