Nobody knows the price he paid

As good as the line-up for the Regina Folk Festival is this year, The Gateway Festival in Bengough is giving it a run for its money. The little festival, located in the community about an hour and a half south of Regina, started out in 2005 with just 500 attendees and a handful of performers. Last year the previously country and folk-heavy line-up further diversified with headliners like Library Voices, Old Man Leudecke, George Canyon, and Big Wreck drawing a diverse crowd of well over 3,000.

This year’s line-up kicks the previous iterations squarely in the dick. Headliners include Corb Lund and The Hurtin’ Albertans, Vancouver indie rock rising stars Yukon Blonde, Toronto alt-folk heroes The Wooden Sky (coming off several jaw-dropping shows in Regina last year), country singer Blake Berglund, pop rocker Shotgun Jimmie, Saskatoon trubadour Zachary Lucky, Winnipeg country crooner Del Barber, Saskatoon buzz-band Close Talker, and a slew of other Saskatchewan acts like The Karpinka Brothers, The Lazy Mks, Indigo Joseph, The Lonesome Weekends, Def3, Factor, Riva, Coldest Night Of The Year, Jeans Boots, and Fly Points, among others.

But the big draw in this already incredibly-diverse cast of characters is none other than undisputed legend Steve Earle. Heralded as the point man of the “New Country” movement with his album Guitar Town in 1986 (but arguably best known for the edgier rock of Copperhead Road a couple years later), he’s been on a hot streak the last several years; his last three albums were nominated for best contemporary folk album Grammy awards, two of them winning.

Earle’s legacy is widely crammed into a country/folk music paradigm, but he’s really a guy who has written songs of pretty much every kind. He’s had numerous genre dalliances in the past, proving that he can not only write but pull off pretty much any kind of song he wants to. He’s also a starkly confessional, autobiographical writer when he wants to be, as evidenced in a post by one of our past contributors that chronicles some of Earle’s drugged, damaged past tracks (which includes some songs that have haunted me ever since).

While I haven’t delved into his last few records I was more than happy when his upcoming release The Low Highway landed in my inbox. As you might expect it sees the self-assured songwriter wandering through a myriad of styles as he sees fit, backed ably by his former companions The Dukes (in a very politically correct move he parenthetically adds “And The Duchesses” to the album credits) for the first time since 1987.

The first two tracks are prime examples of that “anything goes” feel. The title track begins the album with a back-porch country feel, Earle strumming out an acoustic guitar riff interspersed with some gentle raps on the body of his guitar for accompaniment. He makes it clear that this album is inspired by, and largely about, life on the road and his years spent as a, “Traveling man on a low highway, 3,000 miles to the ‘Frisco Bay crossing rivers wild and the lonesome plains, up the coast and down and back again.” The visual of abandoned cars and decimated ghost towns and solitary white doves flying through the prairie horizon matches perfectly with the lonesome slide guitar and some mournful fiddle that enter the mix in the song’s second half. His singing seems to be affected by a sense of either resignation or malaise, as though Earle’s getting tired of waiting for things to change or improve. “Calico County” flips the script, opening with a rocking electric guitar riff torn out of Taj Mahal’s playbook. Less a blues number than a prime slice of syncopated outlaw country-rock, Earle’s lyrics depict a meth-addled, trailer home-riddled region of the US populated by criminal members of broken homes. It might bring to mind some of the character studies of Earle’s past, like “Copperhead Road,” upgraded for the Breaking Bad fans of 2013 who watched Cops while they were growing up.

The energy and tempo of that song doesn’t really exist anywhere else on this record, aside from “21st Century Blues,” another rock-based track that’s reminiscent of some of Guitar Town’s pluckier moments. It’s Earle at his most curmudgeonly, complaining about the lack of innovation promised by past contemplations of the future. “Where the hell is my flying car?” he wonders, before grumping about not having transporters a la Star Trek and lamenting the lack of a Mayan apocalypse.

The brief “Warren Hellman’s Banjo” is a song written to fete a man who, on the surface, you might expect the notoriously left-wing Earle to hate. Warren Hellman was a private equity investor who was once a divisional president for Lehmen Brothers. But the man who Earle described last year as his “favourite capitalist” was about more than accumulating wealth; in addition to a long list of philanthropic endeavors he held a free, three-day music festival in San Fransisco for the last dozen years. Earle was a favourite of his, playing 11 of those 12 shows. The song is an expectedly banjo-laden tune that sees Earle affecting an old-timey bluegrass tone, reminiscent of every song on the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. The tribute to Hellman’s love of banjo is a touching one, to say the least.

The remainder of The Low Highway is comprised of genuinely beautiful numbers like the beautifully-meandering acoustic ballad “Burnin’ It Down” and lonesome closer “Remember Me.” You can almost reverse-engineer Earle’s legacy in the eyes of other musicians; it’s easy to hear some of my favourite bands in arrangements that Earle puts forward here. “Remember Me” could, for instance, be a dead ringer for a Drag The River song, at least until it builds to a full-band, minor key country-fried outro reminiscent of much of Calexico’s catalogue. The difference, of course, is that Earle has been doing this stuff for 40 years.

My favourite song here, however, might be the super-vulnerable heartbreak tale “After Mardi Gras.” Set against acoustic guitar and palm-muted Tennessee Three-style electric guitar backed by a bouncy rhythm section, Earle strikes a terrific balance between the morose misgivings of the song’s subject and his incongruous surroundings. He plays a rejected lover stifling his tears in the midst of New Orleans’ most rambunctious festivities. “Right now I ain’t got the time to sit at home and cry when outside it’s Carnival…maybe after Mardi Gras,” he sings, finding a temporary, though one might expect hollow, moment of reprieve in the festivities outside his window.

Earle has definitely mellowed out significantly since releasing albums like Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts now. While he may come across as softer here his aim remains the same: to shine a light on America, its heroes and villians grappling for power, and the people stuck in between. His power as a storyteller doesn’t seem to be diminishing at all and Saskatchewan, let alone Bengough, is lucky he’s coming back.