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Sunday, April 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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At the Barrymore, Steve Earle shows he's both a country outlaw and a family man

Earle is still an artistic ass-kicker of the highest order.
Credit:Peggy Moore
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Steve Earle, the minister of heartbreak and highways, rumbled onto the Barrymore Theatre stage Saturday night and barreled into 31 songs with fellow travelers the Dukes and Duchesses.

Earle is now Americana's elder statesman. The audience reflected that with gray hair and ponytails. Yet the open-mouthed look on the handful of younger faces in the crowd proved that Earle is still an artistic ass-kicker of the highest order.

Selections from the new Low Country were scattered throughout the evening. "Calico County" is a song Earle said he originally wanted to send to Toby Keith so "Keith would get a hit and I'd get rich." Of course, given the choice, Keith would go nowhere near "Calico County." He'd cut his fingers on it. It takes a card-carrying outlaw to sing it, like it does with all of Earle's straight-up country numbers.

Half of Earle's band -- husband-and-wife duo the Mastersons -- performed the opening show. Their voices, lovely on their own, were utterly unique together. The Dukes are rounded out by drummer Will Rigby, who's been with the band since 1999, and bassist Kelly Looney, who's been with Earle since 1988.

In this way Earle, who's been married seven times, including twice to the same woman, is surrounded by as close to a stable family lifestyle as he ever has been. His 2005 marriage to Allison Moorer produced a flush of new material, transformed Earle into a Brooklyn house husband, and brought him another son, John Henry, who seems to have sharpened his father's focus without dulling his daddy's edge. Or his sense of humor.

"I'm 58," Earle said at the Barrymore. "And I have a 3-year-old boy... which makes me an optimist."

John Henry was the inspiration for The Low Highway's "Remember Me." Before singing the song, Earle described how John Henry was diagnosed with autism at age 2. The down-tempo number got Earle dangerously close to something he's never done: get overly sentimental. Honesty prevailed and kept Earle within reach of the muse that's never failed him: resolution.

"Remember Me" and the 1996 release "You're Still Standing There" (performed earlier in the set, which ran more than two hours) tied together themes of perseverance in Earle's world. The tunes were defining bookends to the show, the former revealing the resolve of a father, and the latter revealing the resolve of a lover.

Earle said he wrote and recorded the duet "You're Still Standing There" with Lucinda Williams in mind. Since then he's performed the song with nearly as many women as he's married, including Moorer, for whom the soaring female vocal part asks too much. My favorite version has been the one with Mississippi-born crooner Garrison Starr. Eleanor Whitman's gave it a roof-raising turn at this performance.

For a guy whose biggest hit is a song called "Guitar Town," which he bit off Saturday night with gusto, Earle seems most at home with a mandolin. The mando-fueled streak of music toward the end of the program included a roadhouse version of "Copperhead Road," a gorgeous "Galway Girl" and the coal-dusted labor song "Harlan Man." With all due respect to political commitments, I'm beginning to wonder if touring musicians' stage overtures to Wisconsin's union struggles are becoming perfunctory.

The Barrymore is a predictably excellent room for sound. That said, Earle's sound man did his boss no favors Saturday night. Earle's voice can cut through cement, but the roaring back-line levels too often overcame the clarity of the lyrics.

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