2016: The Year in Charts

Steve Earle, 'King of the Blues': Exclusive Song Premiere

Ted Barron
Steve Earle

Steve Earle certainly had the blues after ending his marriage (the longest of seven) to singer Allison Moorer last year. But that wasn't the only reason he chose to make his new album, Terraplane, a blues set.

"I've thought about doing it for a long time, same reason as I made a bluegrass record (1998's The Mountain)," Earle tells Billboard.

"The acoustic (blues) stuff, I've done stuff like that before. The electric stuff's a little more intimidating for me because I'm from Texas. It's taken very seriously where I come from. There's no New York shuffle and there's no L.A. shuffle; there's only a Chicago shuffle and a Texas shuffle. So it's a little intimidating for me, but I just found myself with the band that could do it and I had the subject matter, and all those things kind of lined up and it seemed like a good thing to do right now."

Earle began writing Terraplane while he and his Dukes were touring. He continued the process while traveling around Europe, mostly by train, during a solo acoustic tour after that. Terraplane was recorded during a six-day stint at House of Blues Studio D in Nashville, with only the track "Baby's Just as Mean as Me," featuring the Duke's Eleanor Whitmore, created during the sessions.

"I always have a sonic template when I try to figure out how these albums I make are going to sound," Earle says, noting he had three things in mind. "One was Howlin' Wolf records, which were my favorite of the Chess records. There's something about the way those early Wolf records sounded that were sonically some of the best Chess records. To that and Canned Heat records and the first two ZZ Top Records, which were very much a part of what I define as blues where I come from. It's like working with the 32-color box of crayons and taking away all but six; it's simple but it's not easy. I thought it was a good way to challenge myself, to make a blues record; some people might find it arrogant, but I think I can dabble in it and expect to be credible."

Among the latter songs written for Terraplane was its closing track "King of the Blues," which also provides a bit of thematic summing up for the album.

"I wrote it in Italy, largely," Earle recalls. "I circled back around to Lightnin' Hopkins with the guitar and everything. And it's also that thing of sometimes the remedy for the blues is just to make yourself out to be all that. It's probably how I deal with my insecurities, really."

Earle will celebrate Terraplane's release on Feb. 17 with a concert at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. He has other shows scheduled into early March, with a full tour expected to be announced soon. He's also taking part in The Music of David Byrne & Talking Heads concert on March 23 at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Meanwhile, Earle has two more albums already in motion -- a collaborative record with Shawn Colvin that the pair will start recording during November, and "what's essentially a country record" that Earle says is half-written and will include some songs he wrote for NBC's Nashville that weren't used.