Texas blues has always run a little contrary in tone to its counterparts in the Southeast. The line is by no means a hard and fast one, but generally speaking, the old Mississippi howlers have cultivated a reputation for conveying the anguish, disappointment and frustration of generations of impoverished Delta life, whereas proponents of the Texas sound have traditionally devoted their efforts towards the more upbeat expression of raw, electrified jump and swagger. Steve Earle displays an intuitive understanding of this historical discrepancy throughout his new album Terraplane, his ode to the blues of the Lone Star State.
The guitar on “The Usual Time” oozes with all kinds of Freddie King-esque muscle and strut.
“Baby Baby Baby” kicks off in a slurred flurry of blues harp until the guitar, bass, and drum kick in at the eight-second mark in raw, gut-punching unison. Earle peppers his leering growl with a few Buddy Holly octave hiccups, but it’s clear he’s going for efficient, rather than adroit, delivery. “Growl” appears in the preceding sentence quite literally; Earle ends several phrases with a snarl reminiscent of a lion waking from a nap.
Earle’s versatility of inflection is one of the album’s highlights. On each track, he warps and melds his delivery to match the character of the song’s narrator. He opines in a slurred drawl on “You’re the Best Lover That I Ever Had,” and he portrays the carefree bachelor in “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now” with a nasally, two-packs-a-day whine.
His band, the Dukes, is in tight form, too. The walking bass and boom-pop boom-pop drums of “You’re the Best Lover That I Ever Had” are in perfect lockstep, and the subtle, trebly guitar washes that permeate each verse shimmer like motor oil spilled across the asphalt of a Wal-Mart parking lot.
The soaring, echo-laced guitar solo on “Go Go Boots Are Back” beautifully belies the dense, churning riff from which it emerges, and “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now” opens in molasses slide guitar that cedes purchase to bouncing, finger-picked acoustic guitar plucks and lively fiddle swoops.
“The Tennessee Kid,” a spoken-word take on the archetypal Devil-vs.-young’un instrumental showdown, buzzes with ambient guitar hum, and slippery fiddle and plunky banjo duel for supremacy on “Acquainted with the Wind.” The strutting stand-up bass and swinging vocal delivery from guest Eleanor Whitmore on “My Baby’s Just As Mean As Me” push the song to the border of lounge jazz territory.
This record jumps around amongst a whole bunch of sounds and narrative voices, but the aforementioned Texan dedication to facing down adverse conditions with a laissez-faire nod and a jumping blues beat serves as the songs’ shared thematic tether.
“A gambler ain’t got no friends when his luck is down / but when he’s riding high they all hang around,” Earle explains over gentle snare brushes on “Gamblin’ Blues.” But his narrator never sounds resigned to his cyclical lot in a life lived by the cards and the dice. He’s just looking ahead to the next deal, and the slim – but ever-present – chance that it’ll bring a straight flush.

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