Showing posts with label Steve Earle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Steve Earle. Show all posts

Jan 22, 2021

Americana Bands Suddenly Back Singing About Farm Implements and Black Lung

Almost as quickly as they’d flipped the ideological switches 4 years ago, Americana artists this week returned to familiar pastures, turning their attentions from Donald Trump to subjects more native to the genre. Just like that, well-meaning but sometimes overwrought protest anthems were replaced by the sweet sounds of murder ballads and odes to ghost cowboys.

Some 35 new singles showed up in this writer’s Spotify Release Radar this morning from roots and folk artists, nary a one of them mentioning a “Cheeto” or border walls. Almost as if some dark cloud lifted from their minds, the lyrics of their songs suddenly saw tractors plowing the earth, drunks lamenting their lost loves, and coal miners praying for salvation on their death beds. 


Jason Isbell began work on his promised album of Georgia artist cover songs, even finding himself jovial enough to cover Charlie Daniels’ “A Few More Rednecks.”  BJ Barham of American Aquarium announced that his band was working on a new EP completely themed around North Carolina State’s signature wins in football (may have to be reduced to a single IMO). Even Will Hoge cracked a smile, vowing to release an album of songs about old pickup trucks and moonshining this March.


For his part, country and Americana legend Steve Earle was way ahead of the curve. “Oh I knew the emperor’s end was coming and it was time to get back to what we do best - and that’s singing about things from the 1950s as if they’re still relevant.” Indeed, Earle’s last 4 albums have been either covers or songs about trains, mining, and medicine show barkers.


At press time, producer Dave Cobb was booked from now until Labor Day 2023. Americana is healing. 

Dec 30, 2020

Megan's Favorite Albums of 2020


~Megan Bledsoe

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11. Zephaniah OHora—Listening to the Music

10. Sturgill Simpson—Cuttin’ Grass, Volume 1

As someone who has never really been a Sturgill apologist, this album made me a believer. It is something special to be able to reimagine an entire album’s worth of one’s work at all, let alone with such fresh, engaging results. It takes something even more special to deliver a bluegrass album with nuance and restraint, and Simpson does just that, proving that bluegrass is not always about instrumental prowess, but sometimes about simplicity and emotion.



9. Jaime Wyatt—Neon Cross


8. Tyler Childers—Long Violent History

This record is not just about the title track and its important message; rather, it’s about the eight fiddle tunes leading up to the climax of the album. Childers listed several ways to cling to Southern roots in the accompanying video for the title track, ways to preserve the culture without embracing the South’s racist history. But that speech is not as important as his example itself; this album is Childers cherishing his Southern heritage the right way, by learning old-time fiddle songs and sharing them with an audience who might never have heard them otherwise. It is in this context that the title track and the album itself shine, and this is one of the most important records of the year.




7. Lori McKenna—The Balladeer


6. Caitlin Cannon—The Trash Cannon Album

Caitlin Cannon made one of the most interesting country debuts in recent years with her self-reflective album. As the title states, she leaves no secret hidden, airing all her dirty laundry and that of her family for the sake of the song. But for all its darkness and scandal, everything is good-natured and fun, and this is certainly one of the most entertaining albums of the year.




5. The Steeldrivers—Bad For You


4. Ashley McBryde—Never Will

When people say the state of mainstream country is beyond repair, introduce them to Ashley McBryde. When they say that women only sing about happy endings and heartbreak, introduce them to Ashley McBryde. When they say that you can only make it big in Nashville if you sell out, introduce them to Ashley McBryde. And don’t give McBryde or this record any qualifiers; she is not the best mainstream country artist in 2020, and this is not the best mainstream country album; rather, she is one of the best artists and this is one of the best albums in all of country music this year.




3. Tami Neilson—Chickaboom!


2. American Aquarium—Lamentations


1. Steve Earle—Ghosts of West Virginia

In one of the most politically charged eras of our country’s history, Steve Earle showed tremendous leadership by purposely writing a record for those who don’t share his political beliefs. But that would matter little if the resulting project weren’t stellar. Earle’s love letter to West Virginia and tribute to those who died in the Upper Big Branch mine is thoughtful and timeless, evoking the beauty of Appalachia and the spirit of its people, simultaneously highlighting the hardship and hope that runs through these dark mountains. This record has been criminally overlooked, and this is your chance to rectify that injustice.


Sep 4, 2020

A Conversation with Tennessee Jet


From The Sound and The Fury to Faulkner and MacBeth: A Conversation with Tennessee Jet

By Kevin Broughton

Tennessee Jet is a lot of things. Starting with the name, he’s mysterious and enigmatic. Pressed on his given and surnames, he demurs. Like the people in his songs, he sees himself as something of a character; a vessel for storytelling. “Tennessee Jet,” he says, “is an idea. Something I want to get across. I want people to go into ‘Tennessee Jet’ blind – not knowing anything about the artist.”

He’s cerebral – citing first cinematic directors and literary giants as influences on his art before acknowledging more traditional, musical sources.

Athletic? Yeah, that too. The former pitcher and second baseman hit .300 in the lower tiers of collegiate baseball. “I loved that game a lot more than it loved me,” he says. Realizing life in the bigs wasn’t in the cards, he simply moved on to a career in music.

And if all this seems unlikely for someone who grew up literally on the road (not surprisingly, he sings of “going Kerouac”) this Okie son of a bronc-busting dad and a barrel-racing mom knits it all together in poetic fashion. He’s a legit Renaissance man.

Jet’s third album, The Country, debuts on Thirty Tigers today and marks the most collaborative project of Jet's career. A songwriter, front man, producer, and multi-instrumentalist, he took a do-it-yourself approach to his 2015 debut and 2017's Reata, both of which found Jet playing every instrument himself. The Country references those early years with songs like the autobiographical "Stray Dogs," whose lyrics find a young Jet speeding down the Indian Nation Turnpike, his future wife riding shotgun, both of them fueled by a combination of love, truck stop gasoline, and the need to make it to the next show on time. 

For an album that often pays homage to Jet's DIY past, though, The Country also finds him teaming up with Dwight Yoakam's touring band, whose members add Telecaster twang and Cali-country cool to Jet's raw, ragged edges. Paul Cauthen, Cody Jinks, and Elizabeth Cook all lend a hand, too. "I'm always looking to challenge the definition of what a specific genre is supposed to sound like," he says. "People are aching for truth in country music again, and that's what this record came to represent.”

There’s an ache and intensity to Jet’s reverence for country music as art, and the need for it to be preserved and nourished. Over the course of two in-depth conversations (several responses merited follow-ups) we discussed the state of modern country music, what makes a good cover version of a timeless song, the creepy death of a country legend, and much more.


Okay, ready to go?

Yeah, man. I’ve been looking forward to talking with you. I was telling my manager, “Let’s find people who want to talk about the music.” I’ve been doing interviews and it all just seems kind of general. Like What was the first instrument you played? Or Who are your influences/where you from/how old are you? So, I want to talk to people who want to talk about the record and the state of modern country music.

I’m your huckleberry.

You’re an Oklahoma native, but I don’t know that this album would fit squarely in the “Red Dirt” category. Can you discuss some of your musical influences, in light of your having “a head full of metal and a heart of country gold?”

Yeah! I tend to be more influenced by movie directors and literary figures. John Steinbeck is a huge influence. Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone…I’m really interested in their art and applying it to the music that I make. As far as Oklahoma influences, Steinbeck gives you that whole Oklahoma-to-California thing in Grapes of Wrath. Musically, it’s kind of all over the place, depending on what I’m listening to at the moment. Of course, traditional country was the first thing that I was exposed to by my parents.

And then, you tend to run far away from things that you were first into, then run away and back again. So I’ve got a pretty broad range of influences, everything from Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam to Nirvana and Bob Dylan. Just all over the place.

I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a recording artist cite cinematic and literary figures as their primary influences. Could we drill a little deeper on that?

Sure. I think people gravitate more toward what something represents, more than what the thing actually is. As an artist it’s your role to make it clear what you represent with something, whether it’s a song or an album cover. I think it’s the reason why some people identify with certain brands in a certain way: This represents a good time. Or This represents a refreshing beverage. Whatever it is.

And I’ve always felt that from an art standpoint, it’s good to be able to sit back and create characters. Because then, you can tell stories. And ultimately, the song is separate from the artist. The song is going to live on; the artist is just a vessel to tell a particular story. I look at producing songs as I think a director looks at movies. And sometimes with all the emphasis being placed on someone’s personal story, the songs aren’t heard in the way they’re supposed to be.

As an example, if someone’s a new artist and has lived on the streets – been homeless – for ten years, you’d listen to that song in a different way than if the person grew up wealthy. So I want the emphasis to be on the song first and the artist second. Shows like American Idol and The Voice have placed so much emphasis on a person’s story, it makes it hard to decipher what’s really great art, or whether you’re a fan of a person’s story. Does that make sense?

Yeah. A bunch.  


I was listening to “The Raven and The Dove,” and I texted my publisher and said, “Man, that sounds like a Cody Jinks song.” He said, “It is.” Makes sense. What’s your relationship with Cody like? Have y’all collaborated before this song?

We have, yeah. We’ve written a lot of songs together. The first time, we wrote a song called “Lifers,” the title cut of his album – I guess three records ago. We also wrote another song called “The Wanting,” another title track of his. I guess he’s recorded about seven songs that we’ve written together.

He’s just a great friend and co-writer. And honestly, co-writing is not something that I typically enjoy. But there are certain people I get together with and really enjoy the process. Putting two heads together on a song is sometimes beneficial.

There’s a line in the chorus where you speak of being “scuffed up by the devil but washed in the blood,” and having “been forgiven for all my sinnin’.” Cody – on the Lifers album in particular – makes frequent use of spiritual/faith themes. Is that something that resonates with you personally, and influences your writing?

It certainly does, yeah. I think that we’re here on this Earth to try to inspire positivity and love. So I think that spirituality is really where that starts.

Were you raised going to church?

Yes I was. In Oklahoma.

“Johnny” is a song that really stands out; it’s distinctive and grungy and punky. Is there a story behind the song? I’m also curious about the name “Delia.” Any significance to that?

There is. That song’s about Johnny Horton.

Oh, wow.

Yeah, it’s kinda interesting because musically, it’s the least country-sounding on the entire record – probably by a pretty good margin. From a lyrical standpoint, it’s a pretty basic biography of Johnny Horton, and some of the things about his death. He was very into, uh, mystical things. I’m searching for a word here and not finding it… “paranormal” would be the right word, I guess. And the song just sort of lays that out. It’s something good to dig into: the things he said about how he was going to die; and that he would contact (songwriter) Merle Kilgore after he passed on, to prove there was an afterlife. That’s where “the drummer was a rummer” part comes from.

Oh…

Yeah, that song is probably good for an hour-long conversation by itself. The “Johnny” at the funeral is Johnny Cash – who read the eulogy, so there’s two Johnnies. And Delia…they’re all there. It’s a bit of an Easter egg, that song, to dig into and just run the characters. A lot of people think the “Merle” in the song is Haggard, but it’s not; it’s Merle Kilgore. But yeah, I just wanted to write something that was musically different. It’s inspired by Nirvana, as you can tell. Lyrically, it’s very country. And Johnny Horton was a trailblazer of sorts.

You’ve sent me down a Johnny Horton rabbit hole, man.

Oh yeah? [Laughs]

I’ve read up on some of this stuff, and it’s crazy: Horton married Hank Williams’ widow, Billie Jean. Williams’ last gig was at the Skyline in Austin; Horton played there before being killed by a drunk driver. Did Horton really have a premonition that he’d be killed by a drunk? I mean, reading it gave me chill bumps. Surely some of this is folklore?

Yeah! It’s a movie, isn’t it? But by all accounts…I mean I’ve seen interviews with people like Merle Kilgore and there’s a lot of hard evidence for these things. The people who truly knew Johnny Horton knew that he was really into mysticism. And he had all these recurring premonitions. But you know how it goes; there will always be elements that make the story look better. And the characters in the song are there for you to bend in a way that makes the story better.

But whenever there’s a story like the Johnny Horton thing, there’s no real need to embellish anything; it’s all right there. It’s just a matter of writing it in a way that says “The drummer was a rummer and he can’t hold the beat,” and make it singable.


And what was it about that story that made you want to put it into a grunge format?

I felt that if it were written as if it were a 50s country song, it wouldn’t have an impact. To write it in a straight-up folk way would have been to obvious. In this case I just felt like – the story’s so wild – if you’re thinking about crashed cars and chaos, what type of music lends itself to that story? The music is supposed to feel like a car wreck.

Yeah!

It’s chaotic; it ebbs and flows, up and down. It’s like cinema. I wanted the song to feel like a mini-movie. Johnny Horton is fascinating and a big influence on me, but I think if I wrote a song about a 1950s honky-tonker that sounded like a 1950s honky-tonk, people wouldn’t gravitate to it. But if you give it that type of musical edge, it might draw people in, and they might go down the same rabbit hole you did.

I hear a hint of Steve Earle in your voice; do people ever tell you that, and is he an influence on your work?

He is. The record I Feel Alright is one of my all-time favorites…

…I’m going “Kanye” on you here and I’m gonna let you finish…

[Laughs]

…but my very next question was gonna be “The song ‘Hands On You’ sounds like it belongs on the I Feel Alright album.”

Ha! I would agree. That album had a distinct feel with the baritone guitar, the 12-string, the mandolin and multiple stringed instruments. This was one of the cuts on the album where I was trying to record the kind of country song that you just don’t hear anymore. I’ve found that if I turn on modern “country” radio today, I end up writing songs I wish were on the radio. So at times I try to write a Marty Stuart- or Dwight Yoakum- or Steve Earle-sounding song. Because unfortunately, you just can’t hear those on terrestrial radio these days.

We’ll get to that in some detail, I promise. But when I heard the opening riff of “Hands On You,” my very first thought was, I Feel Alright.

Well, I take that as a real compliment. And I probably wouldn’t have made that connection until you brought it up, but yeah. So thanks.

Not long ago I did a ranking of all his albums before he got all political, and I put I Feel Alright right up there with Copperhead Road as his best albums.

As an album, I Feel Alright is his best work for me. I love it. And there’s something about the way it was recorded, too; it’s got teeth to it. It’s the kind of album that if you put it on in the car, you find you’re driving faster and reaching to turn up the volume. It’s just such a great album.

Yeah, there’s not a bad cut on it.

Let’s talk about the two covers on the record. “She Talks to Angels” is an intriguing, blue-grassy take on the Black Crowes’ original. How did you conceptualize that arrangement, because you really put your own stamp on it?

Well, my approach to covers in general is that if you’re gonna do one, your version has to be so uniquely “you” and uniquely different, or else there’s no point in doing it. And that can be a disservice to the artist who did it originally. And so on “She Talks to Angels,” if you try to do it the way the Black Crowes did it, you’re not gonna get close. So if you’re gonna do that song, you better do something drastically different. And something I’ve learned about great songs: You can do them drastically differently, and they’ll still be great songs and still resonate. So that was the idea behind that cover.

Any belligerent feedback from the Robinson brothers?

Ha ha. I don’t think they’ve heard it yet. So, we’ll see.

They’re probably bored and a little ornery right now.

You know, different people perceive folks’ covering their songs differently. I read somewhere that Prince didn’t like people doing his songs, but there were a few he actually liked. For me, I love different versions of different songs, and I would love people to cover mine and do them however the hell they wanted.

So I don’t know, but like anything, I’d hope they dig it.

You put together a nice little ensemble for “Pancho and Lefty:” Elizabeth Cook, Cody Jinks, Paul Cauthen and yourself. And I love the Mexicali horn arrangement. So many people have covered it; what was your vision for making that song yours?

Well, you hit the nail on the head: So many people have covered it before. I was playing a show Cody and Paul and some other folks in Dallas around Christmas time. We wanted to do some songs we could all sing on, and “Pancho and Lefty” is such a standard. It’s a lot of people’s favorite song. So we did it during a set in Dallas, and there was such a great feeling in the room. And as I was finishing up the record and had pretty much all of the recordings and said, “You know what? We need to get in the studio and put that one down.”

But the challenge was, so many people have done the song. And I thought “If you’re gonna do it, you better adhere to your own rule and do something really different.” So for me the idea became, “What if every verse and every instrumental break became its own character?” Because Mickey Raphael [harp] has the first solo.

So I sing the first verse; Jinks does the second verse and a chorus; Mickey does a harmonica solo; Elizabeth does a verse and a chorus; Brian Newman – he’s Lady Gaga’s bandleader – he comes in and plays the horn part, which is maybe my favorite part of the whole record, honestly. Then Paul comes in and sings a verse, and I finish it up. So it’s all about really making it an ensemble thing, making it a little different. And of course, really leaning into the Southwestern aspect of the song.


You’re the fourth person I’ve interviewed in a year, incidentally, who’s made use of Ms. Cook’s talents. She seems to make everybody’s records better, huh?

She does. She makes everything that she sings on better. She ended up singing on three songs on the record, and she’s the only female singing harmony. She’s just so versatile; she’s extremely country but also has a real edge to her voice. Elizabeth has such a unique voice, and she’s such a pro in the studio.

If we did awards for lyrical couplets, I’d nominate this one from the album’s title track: “Yeah, I miss you like the country/Radio don’t play no more.” Such a self-evidently truthful statement. Do you see any reason for hope that Nashville might repent, or has that ship sailed?

Well, first of all thanks for saying that. Uh, I think a lot of people feel that way. The problem is that there’s such an entrenched system, and such a machine, that self-preservation is paramount for it. So I don’t think there’s any way for it to change from within. I think the only way to get this type of [independent] music heard is to create a completely different system and let the original one atrophy on its own.

I mean it’s got to be frustrating. Take the last two or three of Cody’s albums, for instance; they’re chock-full of songs that would be perfect for mainstream radio, if any of their executives actually had a soul.

Man, I think so. I know it gets into an area of subjectivity and opinion, but country music means something to me. It’s not just something that’s put on for background fodder. It’s an important art form that needs to be preserved; people need to be made aware of it who aren’t. Maybe there’s something in it that can mean something to them or help them through a tough time.

And right now what we’re getting isn’t that. And it’s unfortunate.

The folks who make quality, independent country music – who get no mainstream airplay – have to rely on touring and social media and word-of-mouth to get their material out there. With the pandemic, the “touring” element has gone away. How has it affected you, and do you see any reason for optimism going forward?

I always try to maintain an optimistic outlook. Whenever there are negative things going on you have to try to look for positives and opportunities. And it’s unfortunate that I’m putting a record out at a time when I can’t go out and tour behind it. But at the same time there are people who are hungry and have time to search out music online and find things. Hopefully there’s a little more opportunity to have songs get heard in an otherwise cluttered field.

In a weird way everything’s frozen. Life feels mundane right now for a lot of people. So I think now more than ever, people need art for an escape. And so hopefully, until we can get things more to a live, in-the-flesh setting, the online thing will thrive. That’s what I’m hoping.
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The Country is available today everywhere you buy or stream music.

Aug 13, 2020

Sling Blade Country Reaction Gifs

A country bro explaining to his hottie why the truck happened to stop in this pasture

When you meet somebody who loves Tyler Childers as much as you do

Mama said the sling blade is the devil's right hand

When Dwight Yoakam goes to a party where they're playing Florida-Georgia Line

A politically incorrect person making a Luke Bryan joke

When a creepy dude you just met won't shut the f*** up about his favorite singer, Mitchell Tenpenny

Would you rather get free tickets to a Kane Brown concert or pay $20 for french fried potaters?

When I hear a snap beat in a "country" song

May 28, 2020

Album Review / Steve Earle & The Dukes / Ghosts of West Virginia

 
By Megan Bledsoe

There are few figures in country music as inherently cool as Steve Earle. An influence on many younger country and Americana artists both musically and politically, the alt country legend has made a career out of doing things his own way, everything else be damned. In that spirit, instead of making what he would call a "preaching to the choir album,” amid the extreme political tensions of 2020, he chose to release a record for people who likely didn’t vote the way he did, seeking to use his music to unite us and focus on our common ground. Earle made an album for the twenty-nine miners who lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in 2010 because of a coal company’s carelessness and disregard for their safety, and for the families who must wake up without their loved ones every day. Ghosts of West Virginia is a loving ode to that state and to its people, as well as a cry for justice from those forgotten miners and their families.

The album paints a somber picture of Appalachian life right from the opening song, “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” At once futile and hopeful, this song highlights the duality of feeling defeated and forgotten in this world while also looking forward to heaven with hope and joy. It’s a reminder that nothing in this life is certain and that we can’t take any of it with us when we die, either the happiness or the sorrow we found on earth.

The struggle between hope and hopelessness continues throughout the record. They exist side by side and simultaneously. “Time is Never on our Side” is similar to the opener, but this one focuses more on the riddle that is time; it can fly or crawl, and as every moment passes by, we have less of it. The grandfather in “Black Lung” reflects that he knew the day of his first shift in a coal mine that this would be his fate someday, yet in the next breath he declares that "half a life is better than nothing at all,” saying that he wouldn’t have been able to make it without becoming a miner all those years ago. Mining is presented as the only viable option, the lesser of the evils when the other choice is a lifetime of financial hardship and struggling to survive.


Nowhere is this more apparent than in the album closer, “The Mine,” where the narrator is trying to console his partner by saying that things will get better when his brother pulls some strings at the mine where he works and gets this man hired. Upon first listen, it may seem like the album climax comes in “It’s About Blood,” where Steve Earle’s anger is on display in full force as he rails against the coal companies that can so callously allow these things to happen and then call it an accident, and certainly his fury is infectious as the song culminates in the naming of all twenty-nine miners who gave their lives that fateful day. But it’s really here in the quiet end to the record where the most sobering reality lies, that despite lungs full of coal dust and the possibility of disaster, working in the mines is still the dream for this West Virginian, still the only form of hope in this life. This narrator says that if he were going to try and make a life outside the state, he probably would have by now, but he can’t leave the mountains he has loved since he was a child. So he will stay in West Virginia and hope for the day when things will get better, when he will go to work in the mine and be able to provide a better life for his family.

With Ghosts of West Virginia, Steve Earle has made an outstanding, timeless tribute to the people of Appalachia. This is not only a record for the miners who lost their lives at the Upper Big Branch mine but also for the living miners who toil underground each day, for the men who gave their best years to a coal company in exchange for enough money to get by and permanent damage to their lungs, and for all of the forgotten people of West Virginia who find little joy in this world and seek their rest in the hereafter. The album captures all the beauty of this land right along with all of the harshness and hardship, and Steve Earle’s love for this place and these people shines brightly throughout. This will be one of the finest records of 2020 and one of the greatest albums in Steve Earle’s storied discography.


Apr 2, 2020

Breaking Down Steve Earle's Discography (Pre-Woke)

By Kevin Broughton

They say Gram Parsons was the Godfather of alt country, and I believe them. Evidence abounds. If that’s the case, Steve Earle was the Michael to Parsons’ Vito. I don’t know – though I doubt it – that they ever met. If they had, I’m sure Steve would have told us. Funny thing: Neither knew they were part of a musical movement. At least Steve didn’t in 1986, when Guitar Town came out, and I was a sophomore in college and about to ship out for Army basic training. (I have Auburn University’s WEGL to thank for even knowing who he was at the time.)

It was a record that transformed my musical life. Suddenly it was okay -- cool, even --  for a kid raised on rock ‘n’ roll to dig country music. He was part of the “new traditionalist” movement that included Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. But there was something extra-edgy about this guy. A few years later I’d learn to play guitar, inspired by the songs on Guitar Town and Exit 0. I’d write to him in prison, after I’d wondered, pre-Internet, where the hell he’d gone.

There was always a populist, working-class ethos to his music. But it stayed mostly below the surface, never predominating his work. Well, for a while, anyway. His dad was an air traffic controller who got bounced when Ronaldus Maximus fired him and the rest of his brethren in the PATCO strike of 1981. I don’t think Steve ever got over that. Politics sprinkled his musical world for a while, but eventually covered it. Early on, he was clever and nuanced about it; later, he decided you needed to be punched in the mouth with his Che Guevara chic. Steve Earle, you see, was “woke” before “woke” was a thing…you little savage capitalists.

He had his (then) pet projects. Death penalty bad! Land mines bad! I guess we can let Steve in on the bad news – not that he doesn’t know.

Quadruple murderers can still get the needle.

American soldiers in the Second Infantry Division just south of the 38th Parallel in Free Korea can still count on defensive land mines to help stave off Kim Jong Un’s communist hordes, at least until the cavalry can arrive.

Western Civilization can be thankful that Steve Earle failed in his woke crusades to abolish the death penalty and land mines.

There’s a new pet project, you know. You didn’t? You didn’t know Steve Earle’s a playwright? Yeah! And he doesn’t hate Trump supporters anymore. (I’m not one, so I don’t really care, but yeah.) He talked all about how he doesn’t loathe Republicans anymore. I’m sure it’s not because he wants people to SPEND THEIR CAPITALIST DOLLARS to buy records or go see his play or anything. It’s all about the West Virginia miners. Not money. Money is evil, like capitalism.

But that’s not why we’re here.

We’re here to break down the albums of Steve Earle. Well, the ones of his pre-WOKE era, anyway. And by “pre-woke,” we mean every album up to the point he became so overcome with hatred for America that he felt compelled to write an ode to the American Taliban, John Walker Lindh. Nah. We stop just before the album Jerusalem.

I say “we.”

I mean “I.”

I quit listening, Steve, when you glorified Lindh. My fellow Auburn alum, Mike Spann, was the wrong American to die that day in Balkh Province in November of 2001.  It should have been the California POS you wrote your song about.

Oh, wait. I’m getting angry and political, aren’t I? Sort of like you and all your records after 9/11? Mike Spann’s buried in Arlington. Think you’ll ever write a song about him? Here’s a picture.


Sorry. Let’s look at the Steve Earle albums before he got so angry and political, shall we?

Okay, let’s break them down…

One more thing, sorry. Hey, Steve: I’m sure your reaching out to Trump voters has nothing to do with making money for your stupid effing play that trashes the coal industry that employs millions of people, right? Because that would make you a capitalist…and a hypocrite.

Okay, I promise. I’m done.

We’ll look at them in chronological order, highlighting the great songs, then do a rating, which will be purely subjective. Sound good? Okay.

The pre-prison albums


Guitar Town, 1986

The one that started it all. The title cut is so good and attention-grabbing. It was just SO different for the time. Kathy Mattea and Randy Travis and Michael Martin Murphy were pulling country back to its roots, but there was an anti-hero vibe from this guy who’d learned his chops from Guy Clark and Townes. This sad song is the one that hooked me. “Lovers leave and friends will let you down.” I think he might have been singing about heroin.  



Exit 0, 1987

The perfect follow-up record. If you go through the whole (pre-woke) Steve Earle catalog, I challenge you to find two back-to-back albums that pair together more seamlessly. “The keeper at the gate is blind, so you better be prepared to pay.” So much unintentional foreshadowing. “The Rain Came Down” was his answer to Mellencamp’s “Scarecrow,” and it was better. “Six Days on the Road” made it onto  the Planes, Trains and Automobiles soundtrack. “Someday” is a teenage wonder-hit.


Copperhead Road, 1988

At this point, Steve and MCA knew they were headed for a breakup, even as he had his first – and only – crossover hit. He didn’t LOOK like a country singer was supposed to, and he was basically telling Nashville to pound sand. So very many great songs… “Snake Oil” is his song of rage against Reagan, and well done. Maria Mckee of Lone Justice sings with him on the most unlikely Christmas song, “Nothing But a Child.” My favorite? The WW II ode, “Johnny Come Lately,” with the help of The Pogues.



The Hard Way, 1990

Things are really starting to fall apart for him now, though no one really knew – again, pre-Internet. Crack and heroin are in control of Steve’s life right now. There are two or three decent songs on this one. “Billy Austin” is the best, but it’s a bedwetting, anti-death penalty, pro-murderer ballad.  We’re posting the other good one:



Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator (Live), 1991

If we’re to believe the storyline of “Johnny Come Lately,” we have to believe the title of this album is from a saying of Steve’s granddaddy. He’s pretty out of his gourd during this one. But this cover got me interested in the Stones’ (Keith’s, really) country fixation.



The Post-prison albums

“Post-prison,” you say?

Yeah. Steve got 11 months, 29 days for a bunch of failure-to-appear violations on crack/heroin offenses. In fact, he did a prison gig at Cold Creek Correctional Facility as part of his community service. MTV filmed it, while he was working out some new material. This was in 1996. But first there was…

Train A Comin’, 1995

A truly unplugged album, and a new beginning. It features a Beatles cover (“I’m Lookin’ Through You”), and his first recorded cover with Emmylou, “Nothin’ Without You.” We also got a taste for Steve’s appreciation for history with a couple cuts. “Tom Ames’ Prayer” is an outlaw ballad that makes mention of Arkansas Judge “Hanging” Isaac Parker. But what’s really chilling is his point-of-view tale of a Confederate soldier:



I Feel Alright, 1996

The post-prison triumph and return to form, and maybe the best pre-woke album. “The Unrepentant” is a straight rocker. “Hardcore Troubadour” is the most Steve Earle song ever, and a duet with Lucinda Williams is the unheralded gem of a great record.



El Corazon, 1997

Notable for several collaborations, and Steve’s first foray into bluegrass. Del McCoury and his band (FORESHADOWING ALERT) post up on “I Still Carry You Around.” The Fairfield Four accompany him on “Telephone Road.” Emmy makes a return on the historiography “Taneytown,” another great point-of-view song. “You’d think that they’d never seen a colored boy before.” What a line in a great murder ballad.



This next one’s so good it deserves its own

Separate Heading. Though Still Chronological, The Bluegrass Record:

The Mountain (With The Del McCoury Band), 1999

The thing about bluegrass is, you don’t just dabble in bluegrass. Yet Steve wrote a really good record in the genre. It didn’t hurt that he got a really good band to back him. Steve, being Steve, managed to offend Del not long after by using a bunch of foul language at the bluegrass festivals they played together. Still, what a bunch of keepers on this record. “Carrie Brown” was his vision of an enduring bluegrass hit. It should be.

But just to bookend things, I like the Civil War song, this time from a Yankee’s point of view. Based, incidentally, on a composite character in the Michael Shaara novel The Killer Angels.

“I am Kilrain from the 20th Maine and I fight for Chamberlain. ‘Cause he stood right with us when the Johnnies came like a banshee on the wind.”

There will never be a better couplet written about July 2, 1863. Makes this Johnny weep. It’s that good.

“…now we’re all Americans.”


Transcendental Blues, 2000

As we wrap up our tour of the pre-woke catalog, we see a transition into what might have been: that old/new Steve Earle sound without virtue-signaling pretense. There are a handful of really good songs here. The title cut is great. “Everyone’s In Love With You” is an electric rocking/stalking tune in the tradition of “More Than I Can Do” from I Feel Alright. “The Galway Girl” is a return to a Gaelic thing we’d heard hints of on a bunch of records. “All Of My Life” is a real keeper. Sucks he had to get all preachy after this record.



Maybe he’ll come back, that Steve Earle.

Ranking Them

1. Copperhead Road

2. Guitar Town

3. I Feel Alright

4. Exit 0

5. The Mountain

6. Train A Comin’

7. Transcendental Blues

8. El Corazon

9. Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator

10. The Hard Way

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