Rhythm & Views

Joan Baez

Jack White did it for Loretta Lynn. Ryan Adams did it for Willie Nelson. And now Steve Earle has done it for Joan Baez--and by "it," I mean a younger talent has infused new life into the career of a music legend--with the production of Day After Tomorrow.

The title song, written by Tom Waits, has never impressed me, mainly due to the hipster beatnik's Cookie Monster delivery. Earle strips the song down to Baez and her guitar, letting the 67-year-old folkster dig deep into the heart-wrenching lyrics, wherein a soldier at war writes what is likely his last letter home. By the second verse, I believed it was a female soldier, but then Baez lets bitterness slip into the chorus--and I realized the song is darker: An unnamed Juliet is reading her doomed Romeo's final despairing thoughts.

There are other sublime tunes from a number of incredible songwriters, including Elvis Costello and Earle himself. In certain respects, this is a country album performed by a handful of great Nashville players. In others, this is a folk album powered by a spiritual question, a question almost answered in the album's opening track, the Earle-penned "God Is God": "I believe in prophecy / Some folks see things / Not everybody can see / And once in a while / They pass the secret along / To you and me."

Baez has passed along a stunning collection of recordings that rivals anything she has ever done.