Steve Earle & The Dukes released his new album Terraplane on February 17 via New West Records. The eleven-track set is the follow up to the 2013 album The Low Highway and features Earle’s longtime band The Dukes. It is Steve Earle’s sixteenth studio album since the release of his highly influential 1986 debut Guitar Town and is focused on the blues. I took the occasion to interview Earle at length about the album and his career, in both music and politics. We spoke in his manager’s office in New York City. Below is an edited (though still quite long) transcript of our talk, expertly taped and typed by Nation intern James Kelly.
Eric Alterman: Let’s start with the new album. Sorry, but what’s a “Terraplane?”
Steve Earle: A Terraplane’s a car. Three companies I know of make Terraplanes, the most popular one’s a Hudson Terraplane. They were popular with gangsters. John Dillinger rode an Essex Terraplane but that was a more expensive car. The original Hudson Terraplane, Terraplane means like airplane—Terraplane—it flies across the earth!
ALTERMAN: What are you saying by calling the album after that?
SE: There’s a Robert Johnson song called “Terraplane Blues” and he’s talking about sex, the car is a metaphor for something sexual. Terraplanes were like a deuce and a quarter. It was the idea of: it’s a songwriting recording, it’s a songwriting project like all my records are and it was like concentrating on, to me, the reason Robert Johnson is Robert Johnson.
I like the idea of one word, I like the idea of something that was sort of a pretty, some sort of image that talked about this and why I wanted to make a blues record.
As far as we know, and it’s the beginning of recording so there wouldn’t be recordings that predated it, but there is tradition and people have done the research and I’ve done the research. There aren’t earlier versions of those Robert Johnson songs that anybody knows about, so as far as we know, the entire genre of the blues as we know it, every bit of it, is based on one Robert Johnson song or another, which is pretty mind-blowing when you think about it. There’s not one single thing that’s not really based on a Robert Johnson song. I mean the whole twelve-bar, sixteen-bar modern blues thing—it’s all based on Robert Johnson.
ALTERMAN: That’s quite a claim, I’m not in a position to challenge it, but who else would you say contributed fundamentally to the genre.
SE: Nobody wrote any songs, everybody just repackaged Robert Johnson songs and used verses from Robert Johnson songs and took one verse from one Robert Johnson song and on verse from another Robert Johnson song or a Hillbilly song they heard and took verses from that. The verses are interchangeable in a lot of Appalachian stuff and a lot of blues stuff and some of it…
ALTERMAN: So you’re saying that everything out of Chess Records ultimately came from Robert Johnson?
SE: All of the forms, all of the chord progressions, all of the forms come from Robert Johnson and a lot of the lines. There’s three or four, Crossroads, Terraplane, they’re all basically the same form and they’re the standard thing and the shuffles are in that form. Some slow blues are in that form. Stormy Monday is really in that form with just some chords added to it and then there’s stuff like, Hot Tamales and Red Hots—that stuff get’s repeated in New Orleans over and over and over again by piano players because it lent itself to that. That may be him imitating somebody else that came before him because there’s guys at the turn of the century—that might be the one thing that’s not original. But I can’t find exactly that somewhere. People travelled up and down the river, that’s where black culture was. New Orleans is different though because Robert Johnson comes from a tradition that’s strictly oral and strictly playing by ear. Accuse a New Orleans musician, especially an African-American musician, you’ll piss them off faster than anything in the world because they’re very proud of how musically literate they are. People read charts. And everybody reminds you of it and it’s in the high school, in the junior high bands. That’s one of the things that’s changing in New Orleans and it’s a storm needs to be protected because it’ll die without it. But, it goes deeper than that. There were more literate people of color in New Orleans, than anyplace else in North America before the Louisiana Purchase and then we started systematically taking property and position away from those people. So we were left with the people who managed to hang on to something—they’re pretty literate. They learned to read and write and they stayed in school—even the gangsters.