While four-letter words like “road” and “town” have never strayed far from Steve Earle’s songbook, his latest trip veers from the familiar to the expected. On The Low Highway, Earle sounds strained, even gruffer than usual, on predictable travel themes that otherwise serve up welcome surprises from his wife Allison Moorer and longtime live band, The Dukes.
At one point Earle sings, in his trademark weathered drawl, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” an apt adage from the activist turned actor who’s been there and back and then some. Even when he falls behind the beat and short of breath at times, “Pocket Full of Rain” delivers a ragtime rocker, while the beautiful confessional “Invisible” stands out as The Low Highway’s brightest moment. Good fun emerges with the defiant accordion of “That All You Got?,” a hurricane-taunting number Earle wrote for HBO’s post-Katrina drama, Treme, on which he acts.
Other songs are a stretch, and nothing here hurts quite like “I Remember You” or haunts quite like “Taneytown.” Even “Burnin’ It Down” is the closest Earle comes to any protesting. Written last summer as a reaction to Walmart’s wages, it’s an incensed yet defeated look at the corporate stain on small-town America. The Low Highway has its bumps, but the more Earle moves, the more music he makes. And so far it’s been a hell of a ride.