About 10 years ago, I was trapped on a train in Wyoming for fours hours in the middle of the night. I was on a cross-country trip to discover an "off-the-interstate" version of America. We were stuck on the side of a mountain while the Union Pacific coal trains passed through the West on their way to factories somewhere in the Midwest -- Illinois or Indiana presumably. The noise of the passing trains prevented me from sleeping; instead, I curled up in my seat, stared out the window, dozed off when I could, but mostly just watched the passing freights and eventually saw the sun begin to rise. There were a few houses in the distance and small gravel roads that led through the fields. Smoke billowed from the chimneys and soon, I saw cars driving down the roads and people starting their days. The whole time, I listened to Steve Earle's "Comin' Around" on repeat.
Something about the moment seemed perfectly Steve Earle to me: the anonymity of the houses, the loud trains, the frozen-over fields, the 5:30 a.m. shifts. It felt like he had been stuck on that train many times before me, watching the same scene unfold day after day. Since the mid-1980s, Steve Earle has traveled the country, first as a Texas Townes Van Zandt disciple and later as a prominent voice in the socio-political movement of grassroots musical populism. But Steve Earle is more than a singer -- more than an activist. He has become a 21st Century cultural troubadour for the workingman, for the prisoner, for the farmer, for the coal miner, for the homeless man, for the misunderstood, for the misrepresented, and for the mistreated.
It's well-known that Steve's hard-drug livin' days, a year in prison and decades of life on the road have led him into the shadows of the country -- nooks of darkness and shame, which can too often be swept under a patriotic rug. Yet, it's his poetic embrace of the beauty and dignity in these nooks that makes Steve Earle the most important highway philosopher of American culture today. His songs are reminders of the complexities and contradictions that exist in a country as massive as ours, and his albums are a dose of humanity, often times when it's most needed.
Last week, Steve Earle released his latest album, The Low Highway. Like other albums over the past 10 years, Jerusalem, The Revolution Starts Now and Washington Square Serenade, The Low Highway weaves in a fair amount of social commentary, though not without a necessary dose of hope. The lead track, "The Low Highway," paints a haunting image of dreams shattered and opportunities lost along a contemporary Desolation Row. A broken soldier returns from war; abandoned houses collect dust in closed factory towns; and people line the streets for something to eat. Still, there's promise for the travelers on the Low Highway -- a reminder of the possibilities that can come with faith and belief in change:
Heard an old man grumble and a young girl cry
A brick wall crumble and the white dove fly
A cry for justice and a cry for peace
The voice of reason and the roar of the beast
And every mile was a prayer I prayed
As I rolled down the low highway.
The songs that follow tackle corporate takeovers in small-town America, the let down of an anticipated utopia, and a curious tale of homelessness in "Invisible," which makes you wonder: is being invisible -- living on the periphery of society -- a curse or the way to truly be free?
What makes The Low Highway a near instant classic is its natural progression in Steve Earle's musical staying power. Since 1986, he has refused to be compartmentalized -- philosophically, lyrically, politically -- and most certainly, musically. Now in his adopted Manhattan hometown, Steve brings as much New York City grit to The Low Highway as he does rebellious Texas individualism. The result is a musical combustion of "urban-outlawism" that we've rarely heard before. It's a sound that lives comfortably in coffee houses on 14th Street, in truck stops in Oklahoma, and in bars in Nashville. And, at the heart of it is pure Steve Earle -- a growling voice, a simple guitar, and a catalog of songs that preserves those fighting ghosts of America and inspires the possibilities of all that the future can hold.