In recent years, I've had as much of an opinion about Steve Earle's acting as his music. This has to do with his emerging small-screen profile, including a role on HBO's "Treme," as well as the solid but ho-hum nature of Earle's latest albums. The Low Highway, released in April, breaks that trend with a memorable mix of music styles and biting lyrics.
The songwriting stands out, as longtime fans would expect. In "Burnin' It Down" he mulls the fate of his hometown while sitting in a Walmart parking lot. In "21st Century Blues," his diatribe includes flashes of hope like, "Pray for guidance, beg forgiveness/Vote for change and hope they find this." Social justice and a general sense of kicking corporate ass with a pair of well-worn boots make The Low Highway easy to root for.
Just as importantly, it's a fun listen. Earle's voice is as ragged as ever, and it's framed by the excellent work of his band, The Dukes ("and Duchesses"), playing everything from layered roots folk to loose Cajun party music. The title track puts it all togethera heartbreaking arrangement under lines like, "Saw empty houses on dead end streets/People linin' up for somethin' to eat./ And the ghost of America is watchin' me/Through the broken windows of the factories"to help mark Earle's best album in years.
Steve Earle and the Dukes play the Wilma Theatre Thu., July 18, at 8 PM. $34.