Steve Earle isn't big on pep talks.
"Let's just find a performance where all the weird shit happens at the right place, and that's our take," he says, absentmindedly fingering the chords of "Ain't Nobody's Daddy Now" — a new song steeped in rootsy ragtime and boozy blues — while members of his longtime backup band, the Dukes, tune up their instruments. For the past few days, the group has been recording Earle's 16th solo album at House of Blues Studio D in Nashville. It's a cozy, vibey place, located just across the street from the cemetery where George Jones, Tammy Wynette and Porter Wagoner are all buried.
Once the band migrates to the tracking room and kicks into "Ain't Nobody Daddy's Now," Earle comes alive. Nearly 60 years old, he's learned how to make the most of a voice that's been weathered by decades of hard partying and harder touring. He sounds raw, ragged and real, backed by a band whose time on the road hasn't worn away a looseness that seems to suit these new tunes. Over the course of 15 minutes, Earle huffs, puffs, croaks and croons, and the band winds up capturing the final take — the one where all the weird shit happens at the right place — on the fourth try.
"That made me wanna go shine my shoes!" producer R.S. Field yells, happy with the Dukes' performance. Satisfied, everyone breaks for dinner.
Earle grabs a hamburger from the kitchen and walks into the studio's lounge, his 13-year-old Australian blue heeler trotting after him. Bo is a familiar presence at most of Earle's recording sessions. The two have been together for more than a decade, starting with the sessions for Jerusalem, which came to a brief halt when Bo swallowed a tennis ball and had to undergo emergency surgery. These days, the dog's disposition seems to mirror that of his owner: a bit wizened, perhaps, but still fierce and fiery.
"Most of this was written on the road," Earle says of the new album, Terraplane, whose swampy, southern stomp was inspired by blues legends like Lightning Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. "I went through a divorce and I needed the money, so I've been touring a lot, just working constantly and writing whenever I can. Everything that happens to me will find its way into my lyrics, which can be an advantage as a writer and a disadvantage as a person. I don't wanna hurt anybody's feelings. I'm not trying to be mean. But I'm not gonna not write about what's happening, so there's a lot of sad stuff here. It was a good time to make a blues record."
When it comes to muses, you don't get much better than heartbreak. Even so, Earle — who separated from his seventh wife, Allison Moorer, in 2012, and finalized his divorce earlier this year — doesn't cast himself as a sad sack on all of Terraplane's 11 songs. Instead, he slurs and stutters his way through "Baby Baby Baby (Baby)," a classicist blues tune that brews up images of juke joints and Delta dirt, and retells the Faustian crossroads legend in "The Tennessee Kid," whose lyrics are speak-sung in perfect iambic pentameter. Terraplane isn't a blues album that mopes; it's a blues album that moves.
It's also a showcase for the Dukes, an alt-country supergroup whose members include Kelley Looney — Earle's bassist since the Copperhead Road days — and husband-and-wife duo the Mastersons, who handle lead guitar and fiddle. Together, Earle and company have been knocking out several recordings a day, often learning the tunes an hour or so before tracking them live.
"This is the best band I've ever had," Earle insists, "and that's part of the reason for me wanting to make a blues record. Chris Masterson cut his teeth on this stuff in Texas. He started out playing blues guitar, almost exclusively. He's really good at it."
Case in point: "You're the Best Lover That I Ever Had," which makes its official debut at Rolling Stone Country below. Punctuated by Chris Masterson's slide guitar, the song swoons and swaggers with sloppy confidence, like a 21st-century version of "Smokestack Lighting" or "Polk Salad Annie." It's not perfect — nothing on Terraplane is — but that makes it more believable.
The new album is due out February 17th, and Earle plans on spending the intervening months "at home, working on my book and hanging out with my little boy." There's a cross-country promotional tour planned for spring 2015, including stops at the Stagecoach Festival and South by Southwest. If all goes according to plan, Earle will return to the recording studio later that year, too, this time to record an album with tour mate Shawn Colvin. It's shaping up to be a busy year.
For now, though, he's focused on nothing but the blues.
"Let's go get another," he says on his way back to the tracking room, ready to knock out one more gritty, grizzled tune — one with all the weird shit in all the right places — before the night's end.
Terraplane Track Listing:
1. Baby Baby Baby (Baby)
2. You’re the Best Lover That I Ever Had
3. The Tennessee Kid
4. Ain't Nobody's Daddy Now
5. Better Off Alone
6. The Usual Time
7. Go Go Boots Are Back
8. Acquainted With the Wind
9. Baby's Just as Mean as Me
10. Gamblin' Blues
11. King of the Blues