Two veteran voices of songcraft have three Central Kentucky shows this weekend
On their newest albums, Steve Earle and Mary Chapin Carpenter sing of personal reflection and, to a degree, fate through metaphors of movement.
For veteran Texas song stylist Earle, the song is “Wheels,” a work that views a world in unstoppable motion offering a destination that is inevitable but uncertain. “If I took a rollin’ wheel and rolled it ten times ‘round,” he sings. “Would it travel far from here? Would it just go ‘round?”
Curiously, the song is not one of Earle’s own compositions. It is instead a pick from the 10 tunes penned by one of his prime Lone Star inspirations, Jerry Jeff Walker, cut for the aptly titled 2022 tribute album “Jerry Jeff.”
New Jersey-born Carpenter ponders a life journey viewed partially through a glimpse in the rearview mirror but with a more pronounced focus on the hopeful road in front of her. “Hold the world and trust the wait. The road back home is never straight. Bang the drum and keep the faith.”
The song is “Farther Along and Further In,” the leadoff track to her 2020 album “The Dirt and the Stars.” Its eloquence is heightened further in a solo acoustic version from 2021’s “One Night Lonely,” which was recorded live without an audience at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va. at the height of COVID lockdown.
This weekend, these roads lead both artists, each a lasting and distinct voice of Americana-bred songcraft, to Central Kentucky. Earle will perform with his longstanding band The Dukes in concert in Lexington at The Burl. Carpenter will serve up two shows over two evenings – at the Amp in Gethsemane and Equus Run Vineyards in Midway.
Though representing sounds as specific stylistically as they are regionally and personalities that remain remarkably different, Earle and Carpenter share many commonalities. They are only three years apart from each other in age (67 and 64, respectively), released their debut albums with a year of each other (1986 and 1987) and both walked the high wires of commercial country music that culminated in performances at Rupp Arena, albeit as opening acts (Earle for Hank Williams, Jr. in 1988 and Carpenter for Vince Gill in 1992), before adjusting their careers to their own artistic preferences.
Steve Earle’s tribute albums ‘to say goodbye’
It was the dramatic arc of Earle’s early career that established his artistic profile and, perhaps, still carries the greatest weight with his audience. The 1986 breakthrough of his debut album “Guitar Town” established a songwriter full of Texas-bred swagger and sensitivity. By the end of the decade, though, the swagger won out, sending Earle into incarceration and recovery from severe drug dependencies. His re-emergence began in 1995 and has roared full steam ahead ever since. Over the last three decades he has issued albums that touched on blues and bluegrass, music marked by a strong socio-political consciousness and collaborative works.
Curiously, four of Earle’s last 10 albums have been tribute records. Three were dedicated to a pack of elder Lone Star songwriters who served as primary songwriting influences – 2009’s “Townes” (for Townes Van Zandt), 2019’s “Guy” (for Guy Clark) and the newly released “Jerry Jeff” (for Jerry Jeff Walker). Though released following the deaths of all three artists, the records aren’t simple eulogies. They were imbibed with spirits inherent in great Texas music, from the dance hall echoes of their arrangements to the literary but very human detail of their lyrics.
That’s especially true of “Jerry Jeff,” where the breadth of Walker’s storytelling prowess is underscored by Earle with accents that shift from celebratory (“Hill Country Blues” with its giddy sing-a-long chorus) to the stark (the album closing “Old Road,” which uses only Earle’s ragged harmonica colors as accompaniment).
The fourth tribute album, “J.T.,” was indeed a eulogy – a very purposeful one. It was recorded and released within eight months of the drug-related death of the songwriter’s son, Justin Townes Earle. It consisted of songs from the younger Earle’s eight albums capped off by an original from his father entitled “Last Words.”
In the liner notes to “J.T.,” Earle wrote, “I made this record like every other record I’ve ever made...for me. It was the only way I knew to say goodbye.”
New Mary Chapin Carpenter is atypical
Carpenter’s career has journeyed along somewhat calmer terrain. Many of her songs through the years have come across as meditations – stories with calm musical backdrops that don’t always reveal a similar solace in their storylines. Much of that is dictated by the songs’ very makeup which place the deep stoic hush of Carpenter’s singing alongside modest orchestration.
That’s not the sound that took Carpenter to country radio, though. In 1991, the commercial visibility of her career cracked wide open with the No. 2 country hit “Down at the Twist and Shout,” a composition set to the Cajun drive of Michael Doucet and BeauSoleil. It won a Grammy the following year. Indeed, some of Carpenter’s most prominent hits – “I Feel Lucky,” “Shut Up and Kiss Me” and a freewheeling cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses” were lively, electric, rock-referenced outings.
One the most absorbing combination of both extremes, the contemplative and the electric, emerges in the closing moments of her newest studio album. On the record’s namesake tune, “Between the Dirt and the Stars,” Carpenter is on the road again, journeying back to the car radio jaunts of her youth. What forms, though, is a path to a fortuitous present capped off by an extended, expertly paced guitar solo from Duke Levine that carries the song past the seven-and-a-half minute mark. In terms of construction, it is one of the most atypical recordings of Carpenter’s career. But in the way the song echoes so many corners of her artistic past, it is also one of the most enchanting.
“Years will pass before we turn to face the place where we come from,” she sings. “Years will pass before we learn what time denies to everyone.”
Steve Earle and the Dukes
When: 8 p.m. July 23 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd.
Tickets: $35, theburlky.com/events.
Mary Chapin Carpenter
When: 8 p.m. July 22 at The Amp at Dant Crossing, 225 Dee Head Rd. in Gethsemane
Tickets: $50-$95, ticketmaster.com.
When: 7 p.m. July 23 at Equus Run Vineyards Amphitheater, 1280 Moores Mill Rd. in Midway
Tickets: $68, equusrunvineyards.com/upcoming-events