The last time Steve Earle hit the road, he was playing songs by himself from his Grammy-winning album, Townes, with only an acoustic guitar to accompany him. He’s got company this time as he heads for Spokane.
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,” he says. “Even I think I’m crazy right now.”
The Dukes and Duchesses have played together a few times. But they spent most of the last month 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.
That album, with its edgy sound, shook up the mainstream country world and helped to define the emerging alternative country scene. It wasn’t long before MCA Records realized Earle wasn’t suited for the country market and moved him to its rock division, where he released one of his defining albums, 1988’s Copperhead Road, while he developed a reputation as a dynamic live performer. A drug-related prison stint slowed Earle down — and, he says, saved his life by helping him get clean.
After being released from jail in 1994, Earle went back to work and has been prolific ever since — releasing 10 critically acclaimed albums in 16 years, creating controversy with songs like “American Taliban,” and winning Best Contemporary Folk Grammys for 2007’s Washington Square Serenade and Townes. Along the way, Earle has become the model for what is now most often called Americana, although his sound packs an edge that most performers don’t care to match.
I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, which he made while also writing a novel of the same name and acting in HBO’s series Treme, is something of a departure for Earle.
For the latest album, he returned to Nashville to record the new record with acclaimed producer T-Bone Burnett.
“I’m trying not to paint myself into corners,” Earle said. “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 This World Alive is concerned with mortality — naturally enough, given the fact that Earle’s father passed away while the record was being made.
“We’re going to play a lot of the new record,” Earle says of the current tour. “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 f--- about people like that anyway. You could miss something you want to hear if you’re not there from the down beat.”
“The oldest stuff, I’m going to change every night out,” he says. “I have traditionally stuck with one set list for the entire tour. This is not going to be that way. … If you want to hear everything, you’re going to have to get in the car.”
Steve Earle • Sat, June 11, at 8 pm • Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox • 1001 W. Sprague Ave • $29.50 - $39.50 • All-ages • ticketswest.com • (800) 325-SEAT