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Steve Earle taps rootsy sources for his latest album

Ted Barron

Steve Earle has the blues.

That much isn’t surprising. The fiercely independent songwriter has freely chronicled his past battles with addiction, and his relationship woes are sketched publicly in a string of divorces. But though Earle has frequently split the difference between rock ’n’ roll and bare-knuckled country music, a new album, “Terraplane,’’ due later this month is notable as his first all-out blues effort.

“I’ve had a lot of [expletive] going on in my life,” Earle, 60, says in a telephone interview from Chicago while on tour. “I was going through a divorce and I just wrote a couple songs, and they were blues songs. So I said, OK, I’m making a blues record. Maybe now’s the time to do it.”


Earle gives co-billing on the album to his backing band, the Dukes. But fans will have a chance to hear some of the new material in its rawest, most direct form when Earle plays a solo-acoustic show at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams on Saturday.

He hasn’t been shy about dipping into many disparate wells of inspiration. Earle recorded with bluegrass pace setter the Del McCoury Band for “Mountain,” cut an album of songs by his old friend, the late Townes Van Zandt, and made room for electronic beats on “Washington Square Serenade.” (He toured behind that album with an onstage DJ.)

“His refusal to attempt to cash in on any sound or style is admirable — he could’ve rewritten [debut album] ‘Guitar Town’ a hundred times by now, but he has too much integrity and intellectual-artistic curiosity to limit himself to a genre or to try to write a hit,” drummer Will Rigby, who plays on the new record, writes of Earle in an e-mail. “I’m not sure if there are any other artists who have thrown themselves into as many different styles of music with as much artistic success. Neil Young, I suppose, and maybe Beck, but it’s a very short list.”


But in taking a sonic tour of blues styles, Earle — who grew up mainly in San Antonio — says there’s a particular kind of pressure to get it right.

“No offense, but there is no ‘Boston shuffle,’ there is no ‘LA shuffle,’ ” Earle says of stylistic variations, “there’s only a Texas shuffle and a Chicago shuffle as far as the blues is concerned. It’s kind of a very serious thing where I come from. So it was very intimidating.”

Dividing the late-’60s Texas blues scene into spheres of influence dominated by Freddie King (Fort Worth) and Lightnin’ Hopkins (Houston), Earle rifles with ease through lists of Texas players, from the 13th Floor Elevators and Moving Sidewalks to the better known Johnny Winter and, of course, the Vaughans, Jimmie and Stevie Ray.

The “sonic template” for the record, Earle says, comes from three sources: Howlin’ Wolf’s records on the Chess label, LA band Canned Heat, and the first two ZZ Top records.

Is ZZ Top an uncool reference these days?

“Not to me, it isn’t . . . maybe to someone in a bowling shirt,” says Earle, who relocated to New York several years ago, and has presumably run across his share of hipsters. ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, he adds, “is basically Lightnin’ Hopkins, but really loud.”

On the new album, “Aint Nobody’s Daddy Now” floats on a breezy, front-porch feel colored by fiddle breaks, Earle’s acoustic guitar, and a growling vocal that asserts freedom but betrays a lingering sadness. “Gamblin’ Blues” sounds like an echo from the misty depths of desperate folk-blues. Guitars are plugged in for the barroom swagger of “King of the Blues,” with chord changes that suggest Jimi Hendrix.


Lyrically, there’s plenty to dig into here for fans tired of waiting on Earle’s promised memoir; he says it’s no more or less autobiographical than his other work. He writes about his own life about as often as did Van Zandt, Earle says, but more readily offers listeners “a dog in the fight” — a way to relate or empathize personally.

Earle is in an unusual position as both the author and subject of autobiographical albums. The songwriter Allison Moorer, Earle’s most recent ex-spouse, sings about the breakup of their marriage (and the autism diagnosis given to their son, now nearly 5) on an album due for release next month. His oldest son, Justin Townes Earle, also a noted musician, recently released two thematically connected albums titled “Single Mothers” and “Absent Fathers.”

“If you want to get into a thing about Justin, just forget it. You might as well just stop right there,” the elder Earle says when asked about this. (He says he hasn’t listened to Justin’s new stuff yet, but expects to at some point.)

He’d rather talk about the therapeutic power of the blues.

“The cure for being bummed out is not always up-tempo and positive,” Earle says. “I don’t know what to do except write about what’s going on around me.”


Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.