Any rock and roll singer struggles with aging. Rock started as a part of a youth revolution, the music of adolescence and explosive, difficult-to-control energies that needed urgent release. Elder rockers often struggle to maintain their initial ferocity. They adapt in ways that seem to compromise their mission and previous catalog, coasting on the oldies and releasing thinly veiled imitations of the songs that made them famous.
Country music has a different model, one that’s often based around experiences acquired and tales told. In country, age isn’t something to run from—it can freshen and deepen an artist’s career. In fact, while rock bands often rocket into stardom early on, several famous country artists didn’t hit it big until much further into their careers—Willie Nelson, for example, started working in Nashville in the early ‘60s, but it took until the mid-‘70s for him to become a star. George Jones began putting out albums in the second half of the ‘50s, but he also waited more than a decade to reach peak form. His signature tune, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which has been called “the greatest of all country records,” didn’t come out until 1980.
Country also emphasizes longevity. Willie Nelson and his peer Merle Haggard are still going, almost an eternity—and probably close to two hundred albums—after they started making music. In comparison, the singers Steve Earle and Rosanne Cash have hardly gotten started. But Earle, who released his first album in 1986, released The Low Highway last year, and Rosanne Cash, whose debut came out in 1979, just put out an album of her own. Both artists are well into their middle years, but they seem to have little trouble avoiding the traps that await your aging rock star.
Earle does this through versatility and humor. The Low Highway is a “serious” album—Earle sings about the “ghost of America watching me/ through the broken windows of the factory” and the towns where “nothings ever gonna be the same.” But Earle knows that a joke can drive home a point as well as a somber pronouncement. “21st Century Blues,” which sounds like it could be a Bruce Springsteen song, starts out disappointed. “Here I am in the 21st century,” Earle sings, “I have to say it ain’t as cool as I hoped it would be.” Springsteen, however, would never follow that line up the way Earle does: “where the hell is my flying car?” (Considering the importance of cars to Springsteen, he probably should be wondering the same thing.)
Earle also doesn’t allow himself to get comfortable musically. There’s a lot of traditional country instrumentation. But the second track is all crunch and smash, channeling the fire of early Earle records, which borrowed liberally from both country and rock. The song is about making drugs in a dead-end town where there are no jobs and no way to get out; it’s grim stuff. But “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way” appears not long after, working around a jaunty shuffle, dimly reminiscent of the Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead,” except upbeat, fiddle-heavy, and sung by a growly old man. [cont’d.]