Steve Earle

TrackAlbum
Guitar TownGuitar Town
My Old Friend The BluesGuitar Town
Copperhead RoadCopperhead Road
The Other KindThe Hard Way
GoodbyeTrain a Comin'
Tecumseh ValleyTrain a Comin'
Ft. Worth BluesEl Corazón
Ellis Unit OneLive At Montreux 2005
The MountainThe Mountain
InvisibleThe Low Highway

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Contributor: Andrew Shields

Like Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle was one of a group of remarkably talented country singers who released their debut albums in 1986. This group also included Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and k.d. lang and they often tended to be linked together by the music press as part of what was described as the ‘New Traditionalist’ movement in country music. However, while they all shared a deep respect for the pioneers of country music in the 1950s and early 1960s, over time, the musical differences between them were to become increasingly apparent. It became obvious early in his career that Earle was far more open to influences from rock music than were the others. It would be difficult, for example, to imagine any of the others recording a cover version of Breed by Nirvana, as Earle was to do on an outtake from his 2000 album Transcendental Blues which was subsequently released on his 2002 compilation of outtakes and rarities, Sidetracks.

Unlike the others, Earle had also been involved in the music industry for a long time before making his first record. This involvement went back to the early 1970s when he had become friendly with the great Texan song writer, Townes Van Zandt, who was to become a key influence on his songwriting. In terms of lifestyle, however, Earle was later to admit that while the older man had been “a real good teacher” he had also been “a real bad role model”. While the best of his songs had a poetic and visionary quality which few of his contemporaries could match, in his personal life Van Zandt struggled, as Kasper Nijsen put in TopperPost #104, with the “darkness of despair and addiction”. In later years, Earle was to emulate his mentor in following the second of those paths and was only ultimately to escape from it at great personal cost to himself.

During this time, Steve Earle also briefly played bass in Guy Clark’s backing band at a time when the latter was second only to Van Zandt among the ranks of the great Texan songwriters. At the same time, Earle was also performing solo in the in the many coffee shops and folk clubs that had sprung up in Austin from the late 1960s onwards. During his time in Austin, Earle learned a great deal from these two master songwriters and in his later work he was to display elements of the instinctive and visceral approach which had made Van Zandt such an extraordinary songwriter combined with the finely honed narrative skills and meticulous craftsmanship which had been the characteristics of the Clark style.

After moving to Nashville in the mid-1970s, however, Earle was to concentrate on writing songs for other artists to record. As a result, it was only in the early 1980s that he began to tentatively record some of his own material, most notably on the EP, Pink & Black, released in 1982. This early work was, however, rather patchy in its quality and it was only with the release of Guitar Town in 1986 that it became clear that Earle was a major artist in his own right with a distinctive voice of his own.

The better songs on the album also demonstrated that by this time Earle had developed a potent fusion of the folk, country and rock influences which had shaped his music from the beginning. From it, I have chosen two songs which remain a central part of his live act to this day. The first of these, Guitar Town, could be regarded as an early mission statement while the second, My Old Friend The Blues was his first great song. It remains a highlight of his live performances as was demonstrated on the most recent occasion I saw him perform live here in Sydney in April of this year. The album also included a number of other superb songs including the rockabilly flavoured Hillbilly Highway and the bluegrass influenced Think It Over, both of which I would have liked to include here.

One of the chief inspirations behind Earle’s early work had been the songs of the ‘outlaw’ country musicians of the early 1970s and his third album, Copperhead Road, was, perhaps, the work of his which reflected their influence most fully. One indication of this was the fact that one of the principal figures in that movement, Waylon Jennings, covered one of the best songs on that album, The Devil’s Right Hand, soon after its release in 1988. Their influence is also clearly present in the classic title track, which draws a direct line between the rural ‘moonshiners’ of early times and the activities of a returned veteran who grows cannabis on an industrial scale in the backwoods country of Tennessee. On that track, Earle displays a sympathy for what could be seen as society’s outcasts and the marginalised, an empathy which was to broaden out, in his later work, into a more clearly defined identification with left-wing causes of various kinds.

Unfortunately for Earle, the success of these early albums was accompanied by a gradual slide into drug addiction and this eventually led to his arrest and eventual imprisonment on charges of heroin possession in 1994. My fourth selection, The Other Kind, with its defiant chorus of “There are those who break and bend, I’m the other kind” was, rather surprisingly, to be proved true with Earle successfully completing a treatment programme for his addiction while in prison. The song, which appeared on The Hard Way, the last album which he released before his imprisonment, also included one of Earle’s wittiest (and, perhaps, truest) lines in “I’m still the apple of my mama’s eye [and] I’m my daddy’s worst fears realized”.

Perhaps surprisingly, Train a Comin’, the album which Earle released after leaving prison, ranks among the very best records he has made. Indeed, its all-around excellence means that it is well worthy of inclusion in any list of the very best records made in the past two decades. It is a pared back, mainly acoustic album, which shows Earle’s mastery of what would nowadays be described as American roots music. The album is also notable for the superb quality of the backing musicians on it, from the excellent guitar playing of Norman Blake, through the mandolin wizardry of Peter Rowan, to the unobtrusive excellence of the great Roy Huskey on bass. From it, I have chosen Goodbye, Earle’s greatest love song and Tecumseh Valley, which, in my opinion, is his finest cover of a song by his mentor and hero, Townes Van Zandt. Although Earle later made a fine CD, Townes, consisting only of covers of Van Zandt’s songs, the version of Tecumseh Valley here has a stark beauty which renders it in a class of its own.

My next choice here, Ft. Worth Blues, from Earle’s excellent 1997 album, El Corazón, is a beautiful tribute to Van Zandt, who had died in January of the same year. The song also has a personal resonance for me as it is one of the few rock songs to include a description of ‘a full moon’ over Galway Bay (“silver light over green and blue”).

Since El Corazón, Earle has made a series of remarkably consistent albums and I have included some of the best songs from them here. Of these, The Mountain is an excellent folk style ballad which was the title track on his superb 1999 collaboration with the great bluegrass musician Del McCoury and his band. It was also covered to very good effect by Levon Helm on his 2007 album, Dirt Farmer. My penultimate selection, Ellis Unit One, is one of three great anti-death penalty songs which Earle has written. Choosing between them – Billy Austin from The Hard Way and Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song) from Transcendental Blues are the other two – proved extremely difficult. In the end, however, Ellis Unit One won out, through the brilliance of the narrative device of writing a song opposing the death penalty from the perspective of a man who has worked as an executioner himself. My final selection, Invisible, from Earle’s most recent album, The Low Highway, is the best song inspired by the recent global financial crisis and its human costs that I know of. The song also demonstrates that a well-crafted topical song can still work both in artistic terms and carry a powerful political charge. The excellence of The Low Highway, in general, also shows that in his fifth decade in the music business, Steve Earle continues to write great songs and is well deserving of a place among the best songwriters of recent times.

The Official Steve Earle Web Site

The Original Unofficial Steve Earle Site

Steve Earle biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #330

11 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Aug 1, 2014

    A little surprised you didn’t include ‘Galway Girl’ on this most excellent list. It’s a great song, and I’m perplexed as to why it’s not on his greatest hits.

  2. Calvin Rydbom
    Aug 1, 2014

    This is the first artist I’m a decently aware fan of who I would have 10 completely different songs. But yours are well thought out and argued.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Aug 1, 2014

    Thanks for these comments. Calvin, would be interested in seeing your list, as Earle is one of those artists who could easily stretch to 2/3 Toppermosts… David – am afraid Mandy’s dreadful cover version of ‘Galway Girl’, which was ubiquitous in Ireland a few years back, has put me off the song for life. It also appeared in a god-awful scene in the dire movie ‘P.S. I Love You.’ This crime against humanity can be seen here.

    • Calvin Rydbom
      Aug 2, 2014

      Favorite Earle moment? Had to be spring of 2000 at a small club in Cleveland, Ohio. It was after the revitalization of his career critically in the late 90s, but before Transcendental Blues came out in the summer of 2000 and he began to have respectable sales again. Some guy kept yelling “Copperhead Road” through the entire show until Earle finally told the guy to shut up and “Do you really think I’m not going to play my only hit?” Too Funny.
      Saw him with about 14,000 people at the Liberal Beliefs tour in 2003 with Jackson Browne and Keb Mo and he was even better. I gotta admit, I really prefer the more political stuff from Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts Now.

    • David Lewis
      Aug 2, 2014

      Fair enough. And by greatest hits, I mean the commercial collection, not yours.

  4. Andrew Shields
    Aug 2, 2014

    ‘Jerusalem’ just missed out on inclusion on my list – as did a few other political songs like ‘Christmas in Washington’ and ‘Rich Man’s War.’ ‘Revolution Starts Now’ is also a very fine song, indeed…

  5. Rob Millis
    Aug 6, 2014

    Funny you mention The Other Kind (selection 4) as I remember a live performance of that (current or recent release) song being the first time I heard or saw Steve Earle. It was on the old C4 series Rock Steady, in a live concert at Camden Lock. Out came Earle with a “scroll” shaped Gibson mandolin; I wanted a mandolin from that moment onwards and to this day I still love to pick one up now and then. Peter V might be interested to learn that Bap Kennedy’s Energy Orchard were the act chosen to back Earle up on that gig. I recall not thinking much of their own set at the time, and being far more impressed when Kennedy struck out solo. Nothing from Exit O? I seem to recall liking that one when I worked in a record shop. Must dig it out and listen again.

  6. Andrew Shields
    Aug 6, 2014

    Rob, thanks for these and the clip. For my money, it is the mandolin breaks that makes ‘The Other Kind’ such an interesting track – also really like the lyric… On a side note, the last time I saw saw him play here, Steve claimed that the best mandolins in the world are made here in Australia. He also said that his favourite thing to do was messing around on one… And if I were to pick my favourite track from Exit O, it would probably be ‘I Ain’t Never Satisfied’.

  7. David Lewis
    Aug 7, 2014

    The great mandolin player Mike Compton (you’ll hear him on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack ) plays an Australian Gilchrist. I’d love to have a Copley, but alas my pockets aren’t deep enough. There are great luthiers in Australia. I think it’s the woods used. As well as the craft.

  8. Rob Millis
    Aug 11, 2014

    I think also it is the fact that, as with the guitar community, working pro players are looking at the sort of money Gibson and suchlike name cronies are asking for their instruments and over time an increasing number are finding it hard to justify the expense for the quality returned. Not surprised at the reputation of several Australian mandolin builders; I myself saw a great local builder in (of all places) Prague. The USA is no longer unchallenged!

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