Steve Earle's New One Poised To Transcend Blues Of Past

Japanese version of Transcendental Blues features cover of Nirvana's 'Breed.'

Nashville rebel Steve Earle may have followed a lonely path over the years — some of them spent in prison for drug offenses — but he now finds it crowded with admirers.

Transcendental Blues (E-Squared/Artemis), due Tuesday (June 6), is Earle's most eagerly awaited album in years. The early buzz has eclipsed the mixed reactions to last year's bluegrass-lashed The Mountain, where he was joined by the Del McCoury Band.

"We've been big fans of Steve's for years, and it's good to have him rocking again," said Keith Coes, music director of Nashville

modern-rock station WRLT-FM. "The new CD, Transcendental Blues, has plenty of radio hits, and we're sure it's going to do very well."

In fact, the album has already done well on radio. Almost entirely on the strength of its first single, the title song (RealAudio excerpt ), Transcendental Blues is now #1 on the Gavin Americana chart, which surveys airplay of folk and alternative-country albums.

Critical reaction also has been favorable. A recent review in the CMJ New Music Report said, "Earle's tenth album handpicks elements from his past five albums to piece together his most diversified and hardest rocking set to date."

Part of the early excitement is no doubt due to a well-organized promotional campaign that finds Earle being written up in the current issue of Esquire and introducing his new album Tuesday night on CBS-TV's "Late Show With David Letterman."

Even more significant, though, is the breadth and quality of the 15 songs on Transcendental Blues. The burly Earle echoes everyone from Tom Petty to the Beatles, from hard-traveler Woody Guthrie to Ireland's rootsy Pogues (the latter paired up on "Steve's Last Ramble"). And there's a nod to The Mountain on "Until the Day I Die" (RealAudio excerpt).

"It's a rock record, but there's one bluegrass track on it, just to piss everybody off," Earle said while finishing up the recording in December.

In short, the 15 songs on Transcendental Blues allow Earle to explore just about everything except jazz, which he has compared to bluegrass ("Bluegrass is more akin to bebop than anything else," the Thelonious Monk and Charlie "Bird" Parker fan said) and grunge.

But for Earle's fans in Japan, anyway, if it's grunge you want, it's grunge you get. Transcendental Blues is Earle's first album to be released there, and on the Japanese version, song number 16 is a cover of Nirvana's "Breed."

The album concludes with the moving "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)," dedicated to a prisoner who was executed in Earle's presence.

"I hate writing more songs about my opposition to the death penalty," Earle said before launching into the song Saturday on Nashville Public Radio's "The Songwriter Sessions." At that performance, archived this week in RealAudio format at www.wpln.org, Earle was joined by singer/mandolinist Tim O'Brien, who plays on "Until the Day I Die," and singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith, whose upcoming album is being co-produced by Earle and his "twangtrust" partner, Ray Kennedy.

Steve Earle and the Dukes tour dates:

June 8; Nashville, Tenn.; 12th & Porter (Earle appears solo at a benefit, also featuring his son, Justin Earle, and Buddy and Julie Miller)

July 11; Atlanta, Ga.; Variety Playhouse

July 14; Washington, D.C.; 9:30 Club

July 15; Pittsburgh, Pa.; I.C. Light Amphitheatre

July 18; Philadelphia, Pa.; Theatre of the Living Arts

July 23; Providence, R.I.; Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel

July 27; Pontiac, Mich.; Clutch Cargo

Aug. 5; West Hollywood, Calif.; House of Blues

Aug. 12; Vancouver, British Columbia; Commodore Ballroom

Aug. 13; Edmonton, Alberta; Edmonton Folk Fest