This is my high school fantasy: Not only am I the cannon-armed varsity QB, the rogue-handsome prom king, and—what the hell—the supa-smart senior-class valedictorian, but, most important, my best buddy is Steve Earle and my best girl is Steve’s wide-eyed younger sister, Stacey Earle. We live in the small Texas town of Schertz, a 17-mile drive from the Alamo. Each weeknight, Steve and I—with Stacey cheering us on and grabbing an acoustic guitar now and then—hole up in the Earle family garage and jam until dawn. Each weekend, we throw legendary parties: beer, booze, drugs, and the best damn live music in the San Antonio metropolitan area. Sadly, Steve will skip town before graduating high school and will follow wild-man mentor Townes Van Zandt to Nashville, and to stardom, and to a heroin-anchored hell. And Stacey, well, poor Stacey will soon tire of my John Elway dreams, settle down with her lifemate, and eventually follow her bro into the music biz. But for a short, sweet, unforgettable time, Steve, Stacey, and I are Schertz’s very own redneck royalty.
(Instead, I spent my late teens driving around comatose Camp Hill, Pa.—a 17-mile drive from Three Mile Island—with Dustin “Chaps” Chapman, listening to a lot of Boston and Steve Miller, and wondering where all the pretty girls were hanging out.)
As far as I’m concerned, Steve and Stacey are still the coolest kids in class, and their new albums—Steve’s big, raucous Transcendental Blues; Stacey’s shy, quiet Dancin’ With Them That Brung Me—reveal the related roots-rock talents to be in thoroughly content states of mind. For Stacey, this is no great mood change: A bare-feet-and-beat-up-guitar kind of gal, she’s forever played her part low-key, thanks largely to a lifelong love affair with mainstay man and creative cohort Mark Stuart. But perpetually troubled soul Steve—half man, half grizzly—has been searching for emotional homeostasis for 45 long, long years now. The alterna-troubadour has been married six times (to five different women), busted for possession of smack, unofficially banned from Nashville, and, as his lowest achievement, shoveled into the Big House for an extended stay (or, as he likes to say, his “vacation in the ghetto”). In 1996 and 1997, a suddenly sober Steve released I Feel Alright and El Corazon, respectively, 12-steppin’ revelations that unearthed—beautifully but brutally—the extent to which he had wasted a considerable chunk of his life. Last year, he took refuge with the Del McCoury Band for The Mountain, a baptism by bluegrass that allowed the gruff rocker a break from the normal grind.
And now, finally, Steve Earle is done with regrets and confessions and all those apologies; in fact, the man’s just about ready for a joyride. Transcendental Blues is his Full Moon Fever, a 15-track smorgasbord of influences, studio tricks, and guilty-pleasure hooks in the spirit of Tom Petty’s pure-pop party staple. “Steve’s Last Ramble,” fueled by Earle’s back-porch harmonica and a midtempo travelin’-blues beat, is the album’s most autobiographical tune, yet there’s nothing but silver-lined hope clouding the singer’s mind: “I’m thinking ’bout givin’ up this ramblin’ round/Hangin’ up my highway shoes/Lately when I walk they make a hollow sound/And they carry me away from you.” The dusty stomp breaks down into a mad cackle of hoots and hollers—Earle shouts, “Knickers! OK, let’s magnetize this motherfucker!”—then blends seamlessly into “The Galway Girl,” a rowdy blend of Celtic jig and bluegrass stomp. “Wherever I Go” and “All My Life” are blasts of hairy-knuckled Southern rock, a rowdy musical venue that Earle, roughhousing his electric guitar, hasn’t dropped in on since 1988’s y’alternative thunderbolt “Copperhead Road.” Transcendental Blues gives Steve a much-deserved chance to cut loose for the first time in a long time: Grinning wide behind the studio console, he runs guitar solos backward, tinkers with some fuzz-box Beatles harmonizing, blankets odd moments with grungy electric kudzu, and spouts enough between-song gibberish to make the album feel like an all-night hurricane party.
In the mood to spread the good vibes around, Steve contributes the opening—and best—cut of his sister’s relatively stripped sophomore effort, Dancin’ With Them That Brung Me: On “Promise You Anything,” Stacey Earle’s twangy, innocent voice (think Nanci Griffith with a peeling coat of primer) soars unabashed on a bouncing bluegrass base, almost as if she’s singing into the beaming, bearded face of her big brother. It’s a pure, sweet moment on an album that spends most of its time falling in love—and trying like hell to stay there. In fact, whereas Steve has unexpectedly turned to playful lyrics that might not mean much at all, Stacey has polished her magnifying glass to gawk at a relationship’s every crack and crevice. On “Did I Say ‘I’m Sorry’,” Stacey dissects the pregnant silences following a marital fracas—what went wrong, what went unsaid: “I find words so easily/But only those that look good on me/Where would I start, or even begin/Guess I’ll open my heart and reach deep in.” And although there’s a lot to like on Stacey Earle’s second album—she does upbeat best, and should do more work on the bluegrass beat—12 staying-together songs are rarely as captivating as a dozen nasty breakup songs. I mean, really: Where’s the fun in marital harmony?
Being the good, supportive siblings that they are, Steve and Stacey show up writing, playing, and singing all over each other’s albums. But the most poignant brother-sister moment, by far, is Transcendental Blues’ “When I Fall,” a chummy end-credits duet about growing up, growing apart, and, despite all of life’s inevitable horseshit, growing stronger. Steve gives Stacey the song’s prettiest lines, and although he wrote them, only she can sing them: “All these years I’ve watched you trip and stumble/There were times that I feared that you were lost/But every tear that I dried after you tumbled/Comes to mind when I’m considerin’ the cost.” CP