Steve Earle is the young, high & handsome kid in “Heartworn Highways”, a great movie about Texas music. It was shot in 1975-76 but it was to be 10 years before Steve’s first LP, “Guitar Town” was released. Country Rock was more rock than country in the mid-80s . “Guitar Town” along with Dwight Yoakum’s “Guitar, Cadillacs Etc, Etc” meant there was a bit more country music around the house and I always felt that to be a good thing. Earle made 3 albums in 3 years and it was like…OK. Did this guy want to be Bruce Springsteen or Hank Williams ? There were good songs on all the records but where was the great LP ? The record label, MCA, was trying to make Steve Earle a star and this did not sit well. In 1990 his 4th LP, “The Hard Way” came around. We did not know that time was running out for Steve and for the label.
There’s a video made for MTV of “The Other Kind”. Steve is singing in the desert, rodeo footage, epic cowboy stuff and it sucks. I much prefer this live version where he stumbles over the words and has that stoned, disconnected look in his eyes. This is a great song, an outlaw anthem, his “Born To Run”. I do find it to be a life-confirming song. I find it more effective when you realise that the alternative to breaking and bending can be hitting the rocks. When the light at the end of the tunnel is a train coming in the other direction.
That look is in Steve’s eyes in all of the live clips around this time. His addictions were getting the better of him.”The Hard Way” was not a breakthrough album. I think his songwriting was getting stronger but there is still too much filler on the record. Earle was over 30 when he made his first record and maybe he was in too much of a hurry to record. The best half of this record and the best of the previous, “Copperhead Road”, may have been the 12 killer tracks he and his label needed and that a wider audience wanted.
“Billy Austin” is a bang on country folk ballad about a man on Death Row. “Have Mercy”, a classic semi-autobiographical stormer, almost made it onto here. It misses out though to “Promise You Anything”. There are a few of these upbeat songs with a female harmony (here it’s sister Stacey) which I find very appealing. The only Y-Tube clip around has been put there by a fan. What did the record company want ? Were they trying to sell him as an outlaw country rocker or a sensitive folk troubadour ? I have no idea and neither did they. To my ears “Promise You Anything” sounds like a song that makes you sit up, take notice, tap your feet and smile when you hear it on the radio.
Y’know that look in Steve’s eyes. Where he did not really want to be singing these songs. He wanted an authenticity in his work but by 1990 his reality was more than a little scary . Maybe the only way he could be authentic would have been to walk on stage, look ahead and say “Hey, I’m Steve Earle and I’m fucked”. Look at this.
There is a painful beauty in this clip but little pleasure. “Close Your Eyes” is a beautiful lament. This reluctant performance by a thin, dishevelled Earle has a strange intrigue but you would not want too much of it. The handsome boy had gone and Steve stopped performing in 1992. A couple of drug-related arrests and he ended up in jail. He did longer in rehab. It would be 5 years before there would be any new music from him.
I just want to say that I love some of the early music of Steve Earle. I have my own compilations I consider to be the highest quality. I took no pleasure from seeing and hearing of Steve’s troubles. If I seem over critical of what I perceive as the failings of the early records it is because I cared about this stuff and wanted people to hear it. Man, there are a thousand bands who have sold millions of records who I do not waste a moment’s thought on because they are, in my opinion, irrelevant. There were times when Steve Earle tried a little too hard to be a country outlaw rocker and Woody Guthrie in the same man when all we wanted was a guy who wrote and played some really good songs.