Steve Earle describes his latest album, “The Low Highway,” as a “road record,” but cautions against expecting an escapist trip.
“It’s about what I saw just traveling around. Woody [Guthrie] was the first to really talk about the pain he was seeing as he traveled, and I think for the first time since then, times are that tough for a lot of people,” Earle says by phone when reached in Pennsylvania during a stop on a tour that brings him to the Wilbur Theatre in Boston on Sunday.
And though the pain of homelessness hangs over “Invisible,” temptation and desperation waft through “Pocket Full of Rain” and “Calico County,” and disappointment ripples through the “21st Century Blues,” Earle maintains that he is still an optimist. To that end, hope pokes through “That All You Got?” and “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way.”
Steve Earle, & the Dukes (& Duchesses)
“The Low Highway” is far more outward looking than its predecessor, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” And that’s not the only difference between the two records.
Earle recorded these tracks over a five-day span with his touring band, the Dukes (& the Duchesses) and reconnected with longtime producer Ray Kennedy after working over a longer period with T-Bone Burnett and several different musicians last time out. And while Earle has very few co-writes in his catalog, “The Low Highway” boasts two songs co-written with Earle’s costar on HBO’s “Treme,” Lucia Micarelli. So in short, this self-avowed baseball nut at 58 and 15 studio albums into it can still throw a curve.
Working with his touring band gives the record an easy groove, even as it moves from twangy rockers to ballads to a banjo tune. Earle’s vocals come across as unburnished as they do in a live setting and set up a nice contrast to the textures and depths of the music.
In the early 2000s, about a decade after reestablishing his music career following the fallout and recovery from his heroin abuse, Earle started acting, landing the recurring role of Walon in the television series “The Wire” and more recently appearing in “Treme.” Earle also had a part in the Tim Blake Nelson film “Leaves of Grass” and will be seen in the forthcoming film “The World Made Straight” playing, in his words, a sociopath.
“It’s not Harley,” he says of the New Orleans street musician he played on “Treme.” Harley mentors the younger Annie, played by 29-year-old Micarelli, who, like Earle, is a musician first and actress second.
These acting experiences have panned out in various ways. Earle says that being on “The Wire” made him a better performer on stage. And Nelson made the haunting video for “Invisible.”
Earle and Micarelli both said that their songwriting collaborations have been life imitating art imitating life. On “Treme,” Harley pushed Annie to write and sing “After Mardi Gras,” a song used in the show and is now on “The Low Highway” (though with Earle handling the vocals). “Before ‘Treme’ I had never acted. I had never sung,” says Micarelli, a classically trained violinist. “I taught myself a few chords on guitar, copying YouTube videos, and I came up with a chord progression and melody, but I was struggling with the lyrics. I got up the nerve to play the chords and sing the melody to Steve and he says, ‘I love it. Let’s finish it tomorrow.’ And we banged out a song.”
With “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way,” it was Earle who was stuck and showed the tune to Micarelli who came up with the song’s classically inspired violin cadenza. She didn’t perform the actual violin part that ended up on the record, but Earle gave her a songwriting credit, and both say they hope to continue swapping song ideas.
And while Micarelli joins the chorus of those who praise Earle’s insightful, subtle, and empathetic writing, she may be surprised by how uncomplicated the process can sometimes be.
For instance, there is “Down the Road Part II”: Was it meant as a direct, artistically crafted echo of “Down the Road” from his critically acclaimed debut, “Guitar Town?”
“It was the last song written for the album. I hadn’t played mandolin on the record, and I wanted to. There’s that line ‘down the road’ that I used before, so I just called it ‘two.’ ”
Still, Earle says a big part of his job is creating empathy, regardless if he is pulling a song from his own life or giving voice to the dispossessed, as he does on much of “The Low Highway.”
He says he learned the importance of that early in his career with the song “Little Rock ’n’ Roller,” a song about a touring musician missing his young son that clicked in unexpected ways.
“The first time I met Johnny Cash, he walks up to me and says, ‘Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.’ And he wants to talk about ‘Little Rock ’n’ Roller,’ and he related to how hard it was seeing his kids when they were young. Then I’d have truck drivers come up to me after a show and tell me how much they could relate to that song.”