So Steve Earle’s demons were winning for a while and it all got a bit messy. The 5 years between records must have been scary, getting back to making records and promoting them was probably scarier. After years of performing when you are high you have to learn how to do it straight. “Train A Comin’ ” is an acoustic album, contemporary folk as the Grammies would have it. Understandably there are not a lot of new songs. “Mercenary Blues” is the song he performed at Guy Clark’s house back in that 1970s movie. Others came from that time and there’s some covers too.
He eased himself back into the business by way of his young self and the Opry. The players , Norman Blake, Peter Rowan and Roy Huskey Jr are established Nashville musicians . There is an accomplished and relaxed feel about the record. More than anything else it seems like a collection of songs that Steve wanted to make rather than a showcase of his varied talents that the early LPs could be. The two story songs, “Tom Ames’ Prayer” and “Ben McCulloch” benefit most from the restrained arrangements. The covers (including a surprising “I’m Looking Through You” by the Beatles) are not better than the originals. The record was made in 5 days and it sounds as if they enjoyed making it.
“Goodbye” was written while Steve was in a court-ordered rehab. He describes it as the first song he wrote sober. If there is any evidence of a new maturity in his music then it is here in this song.
In an uncertain world it is a fact that any country or folk song cannot help but be improved by the addition of Emmylou Harris. We have known this since the release of “G.P.” in 1973. Ms Harris has the most beautiful voice in the world. She is also a contender for being the most beautiful woman but I’m not gonna go there right now. Here she and Daniel Lanois join Steve for a definitive version of a sad and beautiful song of regret. The version on “Train”, sung just by Earle, is pretty damn good but I doubt that anyone could have anticipated the effectiveness of Emmylou’s spoken “most Novembers”.
At the 1996 Grammy Awards “Train A Comin’ ” was a runner-up in the Contemporary Folk category. The winner was Emmylou Harris for her LP “Wrecking Ball”, produced by Daniel Lanois. A record which includes her own fine version of “Goodbye”. There is no shame in that, “Wrecking Ball” stands against most albums of any year. I just checked and the “Album of the Year” for 1996 was “Jagged Little Pill”, a piece of crap by Alanis Morrisette. The ” Best New Artist” was, I kid you not, Hootie and the Blowfish ! Now if they can squeeze Steve Earle into Contemporary Folk there must be a case for describing him as a “new artist” in 1995. Steve and Emmylou got robbed I think.