Steve Earle, “The Tennessee Kid” from Terraplane (2015): One Track Mind

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You can’t dig too deeply into the blues, and that’s Steve Earle’s intent on the forthcoming Terraplane, without a teeth-splintering clang of your shovel against the legend surrounding Robert Johnson.

These deal-with-the-devil motifs go back much further of course, to Faust and to Mephistopheles. It’s played out as a theme surrounding Paganini, and a series of medieval structures across Europe known as the Devil’s Bridges. But the unforgettable image of Johnson — standing at a parched crossroads in the Mississippi Delta, trading his eternal soul for a chance to play the guitar like no other — resonates in a more modern way.

What you do with this frayed trope, then, becomes the issue. That’s where Steve Earle comes in, with “Tennessee Kid” from Terraplane. A writer of prodigious talent, he enters into this legend unconcerned with its familiar detail, so much as its sense of place. He finds the terrifying contours of this new character’s desperation, and then sets it to a nasty, growling groove.

As the full scope of what the Tennessee Kid has done becomes clear, Steve Earle’s shiver-inducing whisper (“the balance comes due someday”) only adds to its billowing portent. And with that revelation, there follows a larger sense of comeuppance, of unstoppable fate. In the end, this isn’t a song about the devil at all, but one about the damage we all do to ourselves along the way.

Steve Earle’s Terraplane, which follows 2013’s The Low Highway, is due February 17, 2015 via New West Records. The album title circles back to Robert Johnson too, of course. His “Terraplane Blues” was inspired by a 1930s-era product from Detroit’s Hudson Motor Car Company.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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