The Last Romantic Hard Core Troubadour: Steve Earle and The Dukes

By Ryan Hilligoss December 10, 2018


I came to Steve Earle a little later than most, picking up in his career with the release and tour for The Mountain with The Del McCoury Band. I remember very clearly two things that night long ago at Mississippi Nights along the river in St.Louis in 1999: being amazed at how hard a bluegrass band could rock and seeing local St.Louis icon Beatle Bob dancing in front of the stage to Steve’s cover of I’m Looking Through You. Since then I’ve seen him several times during his solo acoustic residency at the City Winery in Chicago. I’ve listened to each new album he’s released starting with Transcendental Blues, on through Washington Square Serenade, The Low Highway and So You Wanna Be An Outlaw among other while also going back through his catalog including my personal highlights El Corazon, I Feel Alright and Train a Comin’. The last albums I listened to and finally understood were Guitar Town and Copperhead Road, two of his first major releases.

Last night at Elgin Community College in Elgin, Illinois, Steve Earle brought the mighty Dukes along for the ride while celebrating the 30th anniversary of Copperhead Road. This was my first show seeing Steve Earle perform with the Dukes and while I have loved the solo acoustic shows, make no doubt about it, I am a Dukes convert from this point on. During a two-hour, 25 song set, they absolutely tore the roof off the house with hard-driving rock and roll, country, Irish rebel songs, and everything in between. The band was incredibly fantastic and includes Chris Masterson on lead guitar, Eleanore Whitmore on fiddle, keyboards, acoustic guitar along with beautiful vocals, Ricky Ray Jackson on pedal steel and keyboards, rock solid Kelly Looney on bass and absolutely on fire Brad Pemberton on drums.

In celebration of the anniversary of the album, they opened with the 10 cuts from Copperhead Road. In between songs, Steve said that Copperhead Road reflected America finally coming to grips with the effects of The Vietnam War roughly ten years after the conclusion of the war, including the release of Platoon and Springsteen’s Born In The USA. 30 years later, the first half of the album is just as relevant as ever in the dubious political times we live in now. The highlight for me was the “Christmas song” Nothing But a Child. The quotation marks are for the fact the song was written and recorded in a hot and muggy Nashville July in 1988. Steve wrote it for his publishing company which was owned by the Oak Ridge Boys who were in the midst of recording a Christmas album so all the writers for the company wrote a Christmas song and put them on the pile, none of which were actually used for the subsequent album, so Steve used it to close out his album.


The next 15 songs were highlights from this studio albums as well as some deep cuts including Guitar Town, Someday, My Old Friend The Blues and So You Wanna Be An Outlaw, the title track to his latest album, a tip of the cap to Waylon Jennings and other outlaw country artists and song writers he has long admired. The highlight for me was Firebreak Line, a tribute to all the brave men and women firefighters who put their lives on the line to protect the houses and lives of those caught in the wildfires like in California recently, many of whom built houses in places they probably shouldn’t have. On the album, Firebreak Line is a country based foot stomper, but in concert last night, I witnessed what would happen if the Ramones played country music….holy shit!!!!….the pace was frantic and Pemberton drove the song and the band to match the heat of the lyrics. I could have heard that one played a few more times. Earle closed the main set with Fixing To Die which segued way into an incendiary version of Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe with Chris Masterson and Earle trading lead lines on guitar. Incredible.

After taking a bow and leaving the stage, the band came back for a three song encore starting with Dixieland and Ben McCullough. No one can rock a mandolin like Steve Earle and I don’t say that ironically. There is a line  in music that runs from Springsteen’s Nebraska through John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow and Lonesome Jubilee to Copperhead Road to Tom Petty’s Wildflowers that leads directly to some of the best country/rock music happening today in the forms of Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson. Steve and others paved the way for the blending of multiple genres of country and bluegrass into guitar based, hard rock with a country swing. Earle’s songwriting skills rank up there in the top 5 of the last 50 years in my opinion with Springsteen, John Prine, Bob Dylan, and Kris Kristofferson. Earle told the crowd they just recorded an album of Guy Clark songs, one of his mentors when he started writing, and a bookend to his Townes album, in tribute to his friend and mentor Townes Van Zandt, that will be released next year which will be followed by a more political album to be released just in time for election year in 2020. I’ll be waiting patiently and listening intently to whatever he decides to release, hoping to see him play on stage one more time. There are several more shows left on this leg of the tour and I highly recommend you get your asses out and see him and The Dukes, you won’t be disappointed.

Typically at his acoustic shows, Earle closes the show with Christmas In Washington, giving the crowd his thoughts on our political environment as he strums the chords. I thought that is where he was going last night as he started the last song as he spoke of releasing is next album in the hopes of reaching out to those on the other side of the spectrum and for them. Earle told the crowd he was asked recently during an interview to sum himself up in one word and after deep thought, said he was a Romantic. Romantic in every sense of the word, but more importantly, in keeping hope, in being like Don Quixote tilting after windmills towards the possibility of love, the possibility of peace, the possibility of a better world for our children and each other. He then surprised me by playing The Girl On The Mountain, my personal favorite song, a slow ballad dedicated to that girl up on the mountain, that thing we keep in our hearts and hope for, never-ceasing from trying. I closed my eyes, picturing that girl on the mountain, and listened to a hard-core troubadour pour out his heart on stage while a tear or two slipped down my cheeks.

Thank you Steve Earle and The Dukes.



Setlist 12/9/2018

  • Copperhead Road
  • Snake Oil
  • Back To The Wall
  • The Devil’s Right Hand
  • Johnny Come Lately
  • Even When I’m Blue
  • You Belong To Me
  • Waiting On You
  • Once You Love
  • Nothing But a Child
  • So You Wanna Be An Outlaw
  • Firebreak Line
  • My Old Friend The Blues
  • Guitar Town
  • I’ll Never Get Over You
  • Galway Girl
  • Someday
  • Fixing To Die
  • Hey Joe(Jimi Hendrix cover)
  • Dixieland
  • Ben McCullough
  • Girl On The Mountain

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