Album Review: Steve Earle & The Dukes – “Jerry Jeff”

Steve Earle Jerry Jeff

Long-time fan Paul Lewis gives his thoughts JERRY JEFF, the new album from Steve Earle & The Dukes made in tribute to one of Earle’s most significant inspirations.

I’m a very long time Steve Earle fan, right back to “Guitar Town”, “Exit O” and “Copperhead Road” in the 80s. I can still recall turning up at the Town & Country Club (now The Forum) in Kentish Town at that time, to find a notice on the door that Steve & The Dukes were playing such a long set that the intended support act, The Bible, had been cancelled. At that time, they rocked. In an interview for the release of “Copperhead Road”, Steve himself described it as “the world’s first blend of heavy metal, bluegrass & Irish folk music”.

As time went on, the “heavy metal” element (albeit that isn’t quite how I would have described it) disappeared – and, while I’ve continued to follow him, and seen him live several more times, I have to admit that over recent years my interest has somewhat waned.

Each time he’s released an album, I’ve still been compelled to give it a listen – but he’s released almost an album a year since the mid 90s, and I’ve found it increasingly hard to give them the time they perhaps need. Each was solid enough, each had at least a couple of terrific songs, his voice is if anything better than ever. But it would feel like more of the same, and it was hard to shake off the idea that, after an initial listen, I’d rather reach for an earlier album for my Steve Earle fix. I missed that “edge” in his earlier music.

Releases over recent years have included tribute albums to his great heroes and influences, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. They bring a new focus, give each a distinctive identity, and both are fine versions of wonderful material. But they still hadn’t compelled me to put them on repeat.

Now we have the third & final part of what Steve describes as a set of “the work of my first-hand teachers”, an album of songs by the great Jerry Jeff Walker.

I approached it with some trepidation – not wanting to write negatively about someone I love and have enormous respect for, but not at all sure what I’d make of it. And I know very little of Jerry Jeff’s work, beyond Mr Bojangles, so most of the material is new to me.

I’m pleased to say, it gripped me in a way that no Steve Earle album has in some years. Maybe reviewing it forced me to pay attention, listen more than once, and find what I’ve been missing in his more recent work. And maybe, while in a similar musical wheelhouse to his other recent albums, delivering Jerry Jeff’s songs in his memory brought out an edge in Steve’s performances that, for me, had been lacking in recent times. One way or another this will be getting repeat listens.

The album kicks off in terrific style, with an edgy, powerful “Gettin’ By” complete with lyrical twists by Steve, marking his tribute to JJW, and admitting to his greatest boyhood ambition: to be Jerry Jeff Walker. Earle was 14 when he first heard Walker, and his high school drama teacher gave him a copy of “Mr. Bojangles”.

I was immediately on board and excited about what was to follow.

The song that follows, “Gypsy Songman” is pleasant enough, another great vocal, but felt somewhat throwaway in comparison. However, the subsequent “Little Bird” is a compelling ballad which grabs the listener’s attention, with a beautiful arrangement and wonderful backing vocals.

The next track, “I Makes Money (Money Don’t Make Me)” slid by, in a similar vein to “Gypsy Songman”. And the aforementioned “Mr. Bojangles” is a beautiful, soulful version but doesn’t add a great deal to the multitude of versions of that song already out there. But then things really do go up a notch with a run of four outstanding tracks: “Hill Country Rain”, “Charlie Dunn”, “My Old Man” and “Wheel”, wonderful edgy performances with terrific vocals and brilliant musicianship, before the album ends with a virtually acapella take on “Old Road

Earle’s voice seems to get better & better with age, and he imbues the whole album with an incredible passion. Talking about the album in context of his previous tribute albums to Townes & Guy, in the liner notes, Earle says “The records were recorded and released in the order in which they left this world. But make no mistake – it was Jerry Jeff Walker who came first”. And after Earle moved to Nashville in the 1970s, he’d had the opportunity to get to know Walker, who enlisted him as his designated driver. You can hear how much these songs mean to him in the performances.

Credit to the brilliant band too – the Dukes have an often evolving line up, and we don’t have full credits to allow individual recognition, but the musicianship and backing vocals are uniformly tremendous.

Highlights for me are “Getting’ By”, “Hill Country Rain” “My Old Man” and “Wheel” but the whole album reinvigorated my interest in Steve’s music. It’s well worth your time, regardless of whether you’re a fan of either artist.

“Jerry Jeff” is released digitally on May 27th, with Vinyl & CD to follow on August 26th.

Steve Earle Jerry Jeff Album Art

Steve Earle & The Dukes – JERRY JEFF – Track Listing:

1. Gettin’ By
2. Gypsy Songman
3. Little Bird
4. I Make Money (Money Don’t Make Me)
5. Mr. Bojangles
6. Hill Country Rain
7. Charlie Dunn
8. My Old Man
9. Wheel
10. Old Road

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