STEVE Earle needs little to no introduction for readers of this column.
Widely recognized as one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of his generation, his work encompasses a wide range of genres and, although typically categorized in the areas of country rock and folk, his influences l also led them to embrace the blues.
While ‘Copperhead Road’ may have been the song that made him a household name, it was albums like the sublime ‘Guitar Town’ that set the iconic artist’s legendary cogs in motion.
Although he himself is one of popular music’s most distinguished songwriters, his material having been covered by artists as diverse as Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Joan Baez to Emmylou Harris and the Pretenders and many more. others in between, the subject of this week’s column is Earle’s latest release, a collection of 10-song covers from the pen of the late gypsy songwriter, Jerry Jeff Walker.
With Earle, the Dukes of the album are composed of: Chris Masterson (guitar, mandolin and vocals); Eleanor Whitmore (violin, strings, mandolin and voice); Ricky Ray Jackson (pedal steel guitar, dobro and vocals); Jeff Hill (acoustic and electric bass, cello and vocals); Brad Pemberton (drums, percussion and vocals), with additional drums and vocals from Tony Leone.
A terrific group of musicians whose full renditions of the late Texan’s songs are fantastic to hear.
The album begins with the honky tonk swagger of ‘Gettin’ By’, which sets the tone for what’s to come.
There’s a nice loose feel to the recording that makes the track feel like it was recorded as part of a live session. All band members contribute equally to create what is a very impressive album opener with an incredibly infectious chorus.
The accordion-led ‘Gypsy Songman’ takes the listener down a different path. A more rhythmic track than the opening, it is perfectly titled and has a subtle gypsy jazz feel with French folk undertones.
The beat is metronomic in its solidity and there are great instrumental passages throughout the song which enhance the overall upbeat feel of the song.
In stark contrast, “Little Bird” is a mid-tempo ballad that begins only with Earle’s vocals accompanied by acoustic accompaniment before the full band joins in. There’s a loneliness to the track that’s compelling. The vocal melody draws the listener in and the bass sound, in particular, is fantastic and has a nice warm deep acoustic depth.
The band goes on a down-home, hoedown to ‘I Makes Money (Money Don’t Make Me)’.
This is a track that would pass just as well in an Alabama hoedown as in an Irish céilí.
One of the many brilliant things about the songs of “Jerry Jeff” is how comfortable Earle & The Dukes are in reproducing and improving on them.
They fit very comfortably into the general sphere in which the band usually operate and they’re in a style that suits Earle and his own writing style so much that there’s a natural symmetry anyway.
It’s easy to see why these tracks were chosen for recording, because if one didn’t know their origin, it would be very easy to assume that this was yet another album of true masterpieces. artwork by Steve Earle.
‘Mr Bojangles’ is absolutely stunning. Its relatively bare arrangement gives the song a melancholic vibe and there is a dark aspect to this version which is excellent. There have been many versions of this song recorded by different artists but this version is one of the most impressive.
The beat of “Hill Country Rain” has that instant appeal that makes you tap your feet as soon as the song starts. The song also has one of the most memorable choruses you’ll hear all year, and it delivers the kind of happy, upbeat vibe that makes you think life isn’t so bad after all. This is the power of music; it can lift your spirits when you’re down, provide the perfect accompaniment to moments of reflection, and simply get you in good shape, and that’s what this track does in spades.
“Charlie Dunn” is a mid-tempo tribute to the late American bootmaker, renowned for his handmade cowboy boots. A mid-tempo track that leads nicely into the downbeat and introspective “My Old Man”, one of the album’s most empowering songs.
The penultimate track on the album, ‘Wheel’ sounds slightly different to most of the other songs, which are very acoustic where it has more of an electric feel. Meanwhile, the unaccompanied vocals on the bluesy closing track, ‘Old Road’, provide an interesting dimension. Steve Earle & The Dukes enjoy a formidable reputation for quality and this album enriches the legend even more.