By L. Kent Wolgamott
The last time Steve Earle hit the road he was playing songs from his Grammy winning Townes by himself, on an acoustic guitar. He’s got company this time as he hits the road for a tour behind his new CD, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.
He has a new backing band, which Earle has coined the Dukes and Duchesses. Having played his last few tours either solo acoustic or with his wife, Allison Moorer, and a DJ, Earle’s new band is made up of his longtime rhythm section of Will Rigby on drums and Kelley Looney on bass, with ex-Son Volt member Chris Masterson on guitar, Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle and Moorer on piano and organ.
“It’s pretty cool,” Earle said. “It’s kind of a big band … I had an electric guitar version of the Dukes in the ‘90s, keeping it to four pieces, money being what it is. It hasn’t gotten any better out there and now I’m out with a bigger band. Even I think I’m crazy right now.”
The band has played together a few times – at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco last October, a Levon Helm Ramble and three shows on a cruise. But they spent most of May learning a bunch of new songs — from Earle’s new album, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, and his extensive back catalog of 14 studio albums dating to 1986’s Guitar Town – a CD whose edgy sound shook up the mainstream country world and coupled with other key early career albums (such as Copperhead Road and The Hard Way) helped to define the emerging alternative country scene. On tour, though, Earle is keeping the emphasis on the here and now.
“We’re going to play a lot of the new record,” Earle said. “It’s the new record. It’s what is done … There’s no opening act, so you really might be missing something you want to hear if you’re late, if you’re too hip to sit through the opening act. I never gave a —k about people like that anyway. You could miss something you want to hear if you’re not there from the down beat.”
One thing is certain, you won’t hear the same set two shows in a row.
“The oldest stuff I’m going to change every night out,” Earle said. “I have traditionally stuck with one set list for the entire tour. This is not going to be that way. From the new record, it’ll be slightly different every night. I’ve got Billy Joe Shaver’s hands full of songs I’ll do off that. If you want to hear everything, you’re going to have to get in the car.”
The new album is something of a departure for Earle. After having won contemporary folk album Grammys for 2007’s Washington Square Serenade and for 2009’s Townes (a set of songs written by his friend and mentor, the late Townes Van Zandt), he returned to Nashville to record I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive with acclaimed producer T Bone Burnett.
“I’m trying not to paint myself into corners,” Earle said. “When I made the last record, I wanted to make a record with T Bone Burnett and write the best songs I could write. One of the things about T Bone is he keeps a band, the same guys. If you suit up and show up, the records don’t sound the same. They do respond to you. But there are some T Bone trademarks on there and some of my trademarks on there.”
As reflected in its title taken from a Hank Williams song, “I’ll Never Get Out of Here Alive” is an album concerned with mortality, naturally enough given the fact that Earle’s father passed away while the record was being made.
Earle’s father was in Nashville when he died in late 2008. Earle was there as well producing an album for Joan Baez. It was then he wrote “God Is God” and “I’m a Wanderer,” both featured on the new album.
“I made the only art I could make in the last two years,” he said.
That art also includes his just-released first novel, which shares the “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” title.
In addition to making records and writing a novel, Earle’s also become an actor, playing supporting roles on HBO’s The Wire and Treme.
Shooting in New Orleans for Treme can only take place between November and May because of hurricane season, so Earle had to scramble to first do a short book tour and then rehearse for the music tour.
Earle knows no tours are guaranteed to be a success these days.
“It’s weird out there right now,” he said. “It’s hard to tell what’s happening with the concert business. It isn’t looking great.”
Earle had a final bit of advice for those planning to catch the concerts: “It’s a really, really cool band, get there early.”
Steve Earle will appear Wednesday, July 27 with The Dukes (and Duchesses) at the 20th Century Theatre in Cincinnati. Tickets are $30 in advance and $35 DOS. For more information, visit www.the20thcenturytheatre.com or www.steveearle.com.
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L. Kent Wolgamott at