Showing posts with label Townes Van Zandt. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Townes Van Zandt. Show all posts

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

Dec 8, 2015

TwitterWINs: December 2015




May 20, 2015

Album Review: Whitey Morgan and the 78s - Sonic Ranch


An album doesn't have to be the be-all-end-all showcase of varied sounds and emotions to grab me as something special. It doesn't have to own a perfect balance of upbeat and plaintive moods. It doesn't have to intersperse rockers with ballads with mid-tempos at optimal track positioning. An album simply has set to some part of my psyche afire, open an electrical circuit between me and the music that never switches off for the entire length of the collection.

Whitey Morgan and the 78s' new album Sonic Ranch flips on the neon and never lets it fade from first note to last. It's a right-in-the-pocket ten-track slab of living, breathing, honky-tonking, country music perfection.

Morgan wrote 4 of the 10 songs on Sonic Ranch, the rest being well-chosen covers - or just new versions of older songs - whatever you wanna call 'em. While that may be a questionable approach to some purists (who conveniently forget that Jennings, Jones, and Nelson all sang other people's songs…frequently), it's not even a minor issue for me. Sonically, there's nothing that would prick your ears to the fact that Sonic Ranch is a patchwork of tunes from different artists and writers. Lyrically, the themes are consistent, and besides the obvious high-water marks set by the Tom T. Hall ("That's How I Got to Memphis") and Townes Van Zandt inclusions, there's no glaring variance in the quality of the songwriting.

It's amazing how an artist who's so comfortable in their own boots can almost create something entirely new out of  another artist's vision. Whitey takes The Damn Quails' "Me and the Whiskey" from its more airy and folksy origin right into the smokiest barroom in town, sets up the amps and gets badass. As much as I like the original (and freaking love the Quails), Morgan makes this song belong to him and his 78s, turning the thoughtfulness of the former version into a swaggering statement of hard-headed defiance.

Morgan's own "Low Down on the Backstreets" continues the theme of the down-on-love high-on-the-town drinking man. "Take me down on Main Street, play me an old country song, when I get lowdown on the backstreet" he sings, and you're never quite sure if the confidence in his voice is from the strong drink or some inner bravado.

After rumbling through a fine cover of TVZ's "Waitin' Round to Die," Morgan digs in to a stunning take on Scott H. Biram's "Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue." The cocksureness of the album openers here takes a backseat to a bit more self-reflection and confession. Still, it's hard for a man with the thundering pipes of Whitey Morgan to sound anything more than a little contrite, and that contrast of intent vs. delivery adds to the magic of this adaptation. It's a clear standout on an album without low spots, and one of the strongest covers I've ever had the pleasure of hearing.




 

"Good Timing Man" removes the mask, and may be the true heart of this record. It's a treatise on the differences between the real man and the country singer who'll "put on a smile and my old guitar" then go backstage to drink away his misery. It's one of the most honest moments on Sonic Ranch, and provides a balance to and an explanation for all the bluster early on and afterwards.

Sonic Ranch is as strong a "real country album" as you'll hear in 2015. It's refreshing to hear such unfiltered honky-tonk music in this day and age of contrived edge and softened edges. Morgan and the 78s' version of modern outlaw country is a comparable sound to what Sturgill Simpson is doing, but with a blue collar approach and a more pronounced low-end. This album may not drive Morgan to acceptance/hype in the same circles as Jason Isbell and Sturgill, but it's a big statement album that will bring in new fans and make old ones very happy. It's my favorite album of the year thus far, and obviously highly recommended.


-Trailer

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Sonic Ranch is available on Morgan's site, iTunes, Amazon, etc.

May 15, 2015

If Dallas Davidson Had Written These Americana Classics


If Dallas, or other bro-ish songwriters had penned these great Americana tunes...

Turtles All the Way Down
Every time I'm crankin' up my new green Raptor pickup truck
I'm chillin' like a villain cause I'm chromed out and so sweet and so fly
Grappler Nittos, LED, silver gearshift, and HIDs they all changed the game for me
But girl, the only thing I want's your ass tonight

Two More Bottles of Wine
Two guns on my back, tattoos lookin' fine
Haters on Twitter saying I'm out of line
But it's all right 'cause I'm so tight
And I got two more bottles of shine



Cover Me Up
So girl leave your Dukes by the bed/I'm bout to drop tha boom
Till there's an illegitimate child growing there in your womb

The Road Goes on Forever
Down farm road after midnight with some Jeremiah Weed
Drivin' drunk with a big ol' dip and Axe sprayed all over me
She's wearing those old Levis that show off suntanned skin
The bro goes on forever and the party never ends

Pancho & Lefty
Driving gravel roads my bro
Is gonna get your truck in dirt
While you wear your barbed wire tatt
And way too tight Ed Hardy shirt
You weren't your high school's smartest boy
But the most badass one it seems
You give every guy the mad-dog eyes
Never turn off your high beams

Pancho was a country boy
His Ford had flames and polished chrome
Wore his ripped-up studded jeans
To make the hotties sigh and moan
Pancho saw a bae so hot
Down at the Sonic parking lot
He stepped to her and spit some game
Took a Fireball shot

Mar 2, 2015

Album Review: James McMurtry - Complicated Game

WORTH THE WAIT

By Kevin Broughton

“Honey, don’t you be yellin’ at me when
I’m cleanin’ my gun,
I’ll wash the blood off the tailgate
when deer season’s done.
We got one more weekend to go,
And I’d like to kill one more doe.”

[Note: It’s come to the author’s attention that a goodly number of FTM readers are consumers of mainstream “country” music. The couplets above are the opening lines of James McMurtry’s Complicated Game. On paper, it’s as “bro-country” as you can get, right? But he ain’t pretty, and he don’t shake his ass. Here’s your chance to learn something.]

James McMurtry hasn’t made a studio album in six years. And a quarter-century after Lonesome Dove author Larry’s son hung out his Texas songwriter’s shingle with Too Long in the Wasteland, he may have come full-circle. There are some constants, at least.

Wry humor. Desperation. Anger, sometimes the fist-shaking, political kind. Characters on the margins, and love just out of reach. These are what McMurtry fans have come to expect. But it’s always poignant. Funny or sad, you’re getting touched in the stomach. The new one turns it up a notch, and sets a new standard.

Complicated Game, on a label that bears the same name, is a stripped-down departure from Childish Things  and a slew of records on the Sugar Hill label. McMurtry came into his own in the 2000s, combining sharp – and often overtly political – lyrics with top-flight rock musicianship and arrangements.

This time, there’s arrangement-muscle in only a couple of cuts. “Deaver’s Crossing” and “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” (the latter a happy little speed-freak/stalker tune) are the only songs where discerning McMurtry fans will recognize the layering he’s subtly made his recent trademark. “How’m I Gonna Find You” is reminiscent of his frenetic, borderline hip-hop rants “Choctaw Bingo” and “Airline Agent;” just a little more desperate and a tad more funny.




But it’s the longing that sets this album apart. Longing for a different, better time, or a just-missed love. The comfortable love that peppers a couple songs is still looking for a little something better, whether it’s one more doe or a way to cash out before the Wal-Mart’s built.

Oh, there’s wisdom and reflection in every cut. The kind that makes you nod, smile and say, “Fuck. Of course. This.” There’s a trio of love songs that tie the thing together, though.

“Copper Canteen” opens the record, and we’re left with a good sense of middle-aged contentment. As borderline-rough as things might be, they’ll still be okay. And hell yes, I’ll wash the blood off the tailgate. (I imagine I’d have said that more than once, had I ever been married. ‘Nuff said.)

“These Things I’ve Come to Know” is the most romantic cut on the record, and with the most common touch. Who among us doesn’t know a hot-mess bartender who somehow keeps it together? And who among us hasn’t had that crush from a familiar barstool. You just…know. (Author’s speculation: She’s the same gal who said “Sit your drunk ass down" in another song.)

Any displaced Southerners among us who envisioned different lives for ourselves, long before we became middle aged? “Long Island Sound” will induce tears for a while. And it’ll be a while before you realize why…if you listen.

Which brings us back to you, Mainstream Country Fan. Do you have the stones to be emotionally challenged? Can you shake off the visual template of Nashville, long enough to listen in a discerning way?

This is McMurtry’s best record, and it ain’t close. And that was a high bar. He could put his pen and guitar down now, and his name will forever belong beside those of Lovett, Clark, Earle, and yes, Van Zandt. If you know those names, you know what the comparison implies.

If you don’t, listen to Complicated Game, and get a frame of reference. This one’s a crowning moment for one of the true and elite Texas craftsmen.

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Complicated Game is available at iTunes, Amazon, Lone Star Music, and all the usual spots (but probably not Wal-mart).

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