Fourteen years ago, Steve Earle staked out a whole new country-music sound with "Guitar Town." Whatever this Schertz, Texas-reared boy has suffered in that time, it isn't underexposure. Now, with the release of Earle's 11th recording, "Transcendental Blues," all the praises sung in the past have resumed and with greater vigor. Tony journals such as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker are touting his talents. Something about this album has culminated Earle's artistic rehabilitation since his 1994 recovery from a drug jones as fierce and fervent as his creativity and cussedly determined independence. Once again, the references to Dylan and Springsteen waft about, mixed with the faint scent of the anointment of a genius. I bet Earle snorts at that title -- one good reason why it just might apply.
But if genius comes from standing on the shoulders of giants, homeboy Atlases Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark have raised Earle just as high as Bob or Bruce. Transcendental Blues may range from Ireland ("The Galway Girl," with the delightful Sharon Shannon on accordion) to the Cumberland Mountains (in the bluegrass workout "Until the Day I Die" ), but Earle still mixes his bracing American cocktail of country, rock and folk in a decidedly Texan fashion, even after all these years in Nashville. For him, music remains a wide-open space under a big sky, a realm relatively free of borders and limits. That's why, at this point, instead of mentioning those artists who came before him in the same breath as we speak of Earle, it's time to include him in the same pantheon.
That isn't to say deification couldn't have come sooner. Earle's catalog doesn't contain a false note. His admirers can even get off as he croaks his way through "Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator," the 1991 live album that presaged his fall into street-junkie addiction. I even walked out of an Earle solo show at Antone's in Austin, Texas, around that time, one where the junked-up, near-skeletal singer-songwriter, delayed by an unpleasant encounter with the local sheriffs department, took the stage and barely played, like the specter of his own doom. But even that couldn't erase the impact of a 1988 concert by Steve Earle and the Dukes at New York City's Ritz concert hall, when my jaw dropped to my chest many times during a magnificent three-hour set.
The new album's title and Earle's brief liner notes make it clear that the difference with this record is indeed transcendence. He defines it as "being still long enough to know when it's time to move on." These words would not be so profound coming from anyone less hyperactive, intense and mercurial than Earle.
Since cleaning up his act, Earle has engaged in a headlong series of releases that both redefine his art (the post-country albums "I Feel Alright" and "El Corazén") and break form (the hyper-folk of "Train A Comin'" and his bluegrass collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, "The Mountain"). On "Transcendental Blues," Earle delivers his 15 most deeply considered recordings. He has sharpened the fierceness of his lyrical and melodic gifts that mark him as a major modern-American musical artist.
I may be guilty of over-identification with Earle's work, being a scant year older. Earle's now-45-year-old musical and personal perspective has always made perfect sense to this writer's ears and sensibility. But I swear I'm not just reading my own 40-something hints of grace and self-actualization in many of the songs on "Transcendental Blues." Titles like "I Can Wait," "The Boy Who Never Cried," "Steve's Last Ramble," "Lonelier Than This," "Until I Die" and "All of My Life" are borne out in their songs by a certain perspective that only comes with time and experience.
While Earle has always seemed preternaturally perspicacious, "Transcendental Blues" plays as if the overgrown teen who's been rattling around in a big man's suit, savoring his extended adolescence, has now finally grown to fit comfortably into the role he has tailored for himself. Considering how close Earle came to the converse, to living the legend of burning out, this is no small achievement.
The music that surrounds this personal coming-of-age fits Earle's perspective like a handmade pair of boots: robust-yet-adult, guitar-drenched rock & roll; sparkling yet world-wise modern folk-rock; Gaelic and hillbilly string-band reels for the new millennium; and more. From the Beatle-esque string swirls on "The Boy Who Never Cried" to the closing Death Row meditation "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)," the always profound and often provocative Earle has never sounded so thoughtful and sharp.
The most significant moment here might be the least obvious: Earle's modest, midalbum duet with sister Stacey on "When I Fall." Both a blunt admission of his own self-defeatist foibles and the simple acknowledgment that a little genuine love just might be the balm for life's troubles, it's a moment of almost naked, childlike honesty. And it gives an indication of Earle's particular genius -- not just standing on the shoulders of giants, but knowing how far one can tumble, and how high and heady true greatness is.