Alt-country kingpin Steve Earle had a specific aesthetic concept in mind while penning the follow-up to 2011's Grammy-nominated I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, which was a companion album to Earle's Hank-Williams-inspired debut novel of the same name.
Released in April by New West Records, The Low Highway is essentially a musical travelogue, one that encompasses the anti-Wal-Mart "Burnin' It Down," the bluesy "Calico County," and the touching "Warren Hellman's Banjo," a tribute to the late Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder.
"It started out with me wanting to write a record of songs for my band to play," says Earle, "because I had the best band out supporting I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive that I ever had. So I felt like it was time to record with my own band again."
But as the songs developed, it became clear that they were adding up to something more.
"Looking out the window of the tour bus and trying to write these songs for the band to play, it finally dawned on me that I did this job that was invented by Bob Dylan — and that he was creating himself more or less in Woody Guthrie's image. And so all of us have this connection to the Great Depression, because we're all, in a way, emulating Woody Guthrie."
The job, as Earle sees it, is to ramble through America and document the post-Occupy Wall Street hard times he observes along the way. The album features Earle's missus, Allison Moorer, as well as two songs he wrote with his Treme co-star Lucia Micarelli.
When the conversation inevitably turns to the Crescent City, the singer-songwriter doesn't hide his anger about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina ("almost nothing has happened") or the converse reaction to Hurricane Sandy ("more attention was paid to New York than New Orleans because there was a lot more money there"). And don't get him started on the sorry state of FEMA.
"There are no resources to respond to anything," says Earle. "We underfund schools because rich people's kids are going to private schools. And rich people have kinda been running things, and they don't give a fuck."
Meanwhile, the Texas-bred outlaw — who helped jump-start the alt-country movement with his picture-perfect 1986 debut Guitar Town — sneers at flannel-shirted, work-booted, feather-bearded young hipsters who want to resemble Woody. "There's a whole fashion mode for songwriters now that comes right out of the '30s," says Earle, while noting that no folksinger since Guthrie had personally experienced those conditions. Not even Dylan.
"So it suddenly occurred to me," Earle concludes, "as I'm looking out the window of — not a boxcar — but a three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar tour bus — that I was witnessing something like Woody saw. That times out there really are that hard, and none of us have ever seen this before. So we're seeing what Woody saw, for the first time since this job was invented. And that's what The Low Highway is, that's what it's all about."