STEVE Earle needs little or no introduction to readers of this column.
Widely recognised as one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of his generation, his work encompasses a wide range of genres and while he’s usually categorised in the country rock and folk fields his influences have also seen him embrace blues.
While ‘Copperhead Road’ might be the song that made him a household name it was albums like the sublime ‘Guitar Town’ that set the iconic artist’s legendary wheels in motion.
While he’s one of popular music’s most distinguished songwriters in his own right, with 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 in between, the subject matter for this week’s column is Earle’s newest release, a celebratory 10-song cover collection from the pen of late gypsy songwriter, Jerry Jeff Walker.
Along with Earle, the Dukes on the album are composed of: Chris Masterson (guitar, mandolin, and vocals); Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle, strings, mandolin, and vocal); 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 by Tony Leone.
A formidable group of musicians whose full band interpretations 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 follow.
There is a lovely loose feel to the recording which gives the impression the track was recorded as part of a live session. All the band members contribute in equal measure to create what is a very impressive album opener complete with a chorus that is incredibly infectious.
The accordion-led ‘Gypsy Songman’ takes the listener down a different path. A more up-tempo track than the opener, it’s perfectly titled and possesses a subtle gypsy-jazz feel with French folk undertones.
The rhythm is metronomic in its solidity and there are stunning instrumental passages throughout the song that enhance the overall, upbeat feel of the song.
In complete contrast, ‘Little Bird’ is a mid-tempo ballad which begins with just Earle’s vocals accompanied by acoustic backing before the full band joins in. There is a loneliness to the track that is compelling. The vocal melody draws the listener in and the bass sound, in particular, is fantastic and has lovely, deep and warm acoustic depth.
The band goes off on a down-home, hoedown on ‘I Makes Money (Money Don’t Make Me)’.
This is a track that would go down as well at an Alabama hoedown as it would at an Irish céilí.
One of the many brilliant aspects to the songs on ‘Jerry Jeff’ is how comfortable Earle & The Dukes are in replicating and enhancing them.
They fit very comfortably into the general sphere in which the band ordinarily operates and they are of a style that is so befitting Earle and his own writing style there is a natural symmetry there anyway.
It’s easy see why these tracks were chosen to record because if one didn’t know their origin it would be very easy to assume this was yet another album bone fide Steve Earle masterpieces.
‘Mr Bojangles’ is absolutely stunning. It’s relatively sparse arrangement gives the song a melancholic vibe and there is sombre aspect to this version that is excellent. There have been many versions of this track recorded by different artists but this version is one of the most impressive.
The rhythm of ‘Hill Country Rain’ has that instant appeal that has you tapping your foot along as soon as the song begins. The song also has one of the most memorable choruses you’ll hear all year and it offers up the kind of happy, upbeat vibe that makes you think life is not so bad after all. That’s the power of music; it can bring you up when you’re down, provide perfect accompaniment to moments of reflection, and just put you in good form, and that’s what this track does in spades.
‘Charlie Dunn’ is a mid-tempo tribute to the late American boot-maker who was renowned for his handmade cowboy boots. A mid-tempo track it leads nicely into the downbeat, introspective ‘My Old Man’, one of the most thought-provoking songs on the album.
The penultimate track on the album, ‘Wheel’ has a slightly different sound to most of the other songs, which are very much acoustic driven where this has more of an electric feel. Meanwhile, the unaccompanied vocals on the bluesy closing track, ‘Old Road’, give an interesting dimension. Steve Earle & The Dukes enjoy a formidable reputation for quality and this album enhances the legend even more.