Steve Earle In The 21st Century

I don’t know the 21st century LPs of Steve Earle well enough to take them apart and see how they work. In the 10 years after “El Corazon” he released a bluegrass LP & 4 studio records. I was still listening but I wasn’t buying. It’s no reflection on the quality, it was just that I had plenty of his music and not enough time to listen to it all. This happened with a few artists. My collection had enough Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, R.E.M. (In those cases I was spending money on  “expanded” versions of LPs I already owned). I wanted to spread my wings and splash the cash on something a little different. Those two volumes of James Carr’s work on Goldwax would look pretty good on my shelf and sound even better. It is, though, no problem to find a fine and varied selection from Steve’s later period. So here we go…

Now, losing your heart to a black haired, blue eyed Galway Girl is like seeing Venice for the first time. It’s like dancing on the edge of a volcano. It is a wonderful thing…really. One Friday night it happened to a good friend of mine when he got lucky as we all sat at a pub table. It was Saturday afternoon before he fully regained his powers of speech. Steve’s affinity with Ireland had previously led him to record with the Pogues and to mention St Patrick’s Day in his UK concerts and expect us to cheer. (Paddy’s Night is OK but the Irish guys I hung with needed no extra incentive to drink to excess). He lived in Galway for a while and “Galway Girl” is a perfect collision of Texas and Ireland. Sharon Shannon is a peerless accordionist and the rest of the band seem to know their way around their instruments.

Now this is more my thing. A loud and proud polemic, the title track from the 2004 Grammy winning “The Revolution Starts Now”. Earle writing was becoming more engaged with social issues. His 2002 LP “Jerusalem” , dealing with the USA post 9/11, had instigated controversy, particularly the song “John Walker’s Blues”, written from the perspective of an American convert to Islam who had fought with the Taliban. Now I grew up expecting songwriters to engage with the world, to provoke and encourage debate. Here in the UK Steve Earle’s political views were no surprise. Personally I was more interested to hear what he had to say than Springsteen was singing about in “The Rising”. They were strange days indeed in the USA, even those country poppets the Ditzy Chicks caught a shitstorm for having the nerve to say what they thought about something.

“The Revolution Starts Now” is Steve and the Dukes at their rocking best, a fresh take on classic American music. The assertiveness of the lyrics makes me smile…debate this song and shove it. A revolution of hope over fear…in your own backyard, in your own hometown !

Socially conscious art can get a little worthy, even preachy. In 2009 Steve Earle recorded an LP of songs written by his friend and mentor Townes Van Zandt who died in 1997. Townes was never more than a cult artist and his world weary song stories have inspired much imitation. There was no-one better placed to create such a tribute and “Townes” is sensitive, respectful and interesting. There are live clips around of Steve’s take on the songs but “No Place To Fall” is such a great track. You know, maybe I have room for just one more Steve Earle LP in my collection.

I knew what I knew now then. Well I’d probably do it again (Steve Earle: El Corazon)

After the relative unity of theme and style of “I Feel Alright” Steve Earle stretched out again on 1997’s “El Corazon”. There’s bluegrass, there’s country tinged hard rock and there’s the stuff in between. The glue that keeps it together is the attitude. The songs are about troubled lives or warnings of possible trouble ahead. There is not a resignation to this, more an acceptance that life is not always how you want it to be but it’s all we’ve got and the good stuff is the best.

To play this music Steve needed more than the rocking Dukes could provide. He recruited Buddy Miller, now a famed producer and accompanist to the stars but then still making his way. This is what it sounded like…

What Miller adds is texture and context. Steve’s songs had been a little constricted by their form. Here’s the rocking outlaw anthem, here’s the tender country ballad. On “El Corazon” the strength and maturity of the lyrics are supported by a wider musical palette. Here Buddy’s Rickenbacker is a perfect foil to “Somewhere Out There”.

If you’re sad or if you’re lonely
If you’re scared, if you’re only
Tired of fightin’
Seekin’ shelter
Just hold on I’m
Somewhere out there

I can do no better than use these lyrics. “If You Fall” is another song about the perils of affairs of the heart. The pay-off is “Well just this one time”. This pair, along with “Poison Lovers”, are mid-paced dynamic tunes that lift the spirit. The live clips, with Steve and Buddy have a confidence an an energy and Steve looks like he knows that he has got it going on. This, though, is about the record and there is confidence and energy to spare there too.

“Taneytown” is a dark story of getting away with murder. I keep wanting to use the word “maturity” as if it’s a good thing. I think that “moral ambiguity” is more suited to describe the appeal of the songs on this record. The rocking backing vocals are by Emmylou Harris. If there was a live clip of her doing this song you would have to prove you were over 18 to watch it.

The two acoustic tracks are of note. The opening song “Christmas In Washington” evokes the spirit and memory of American radicalism from Joe Hill to Malcolm X. A sign of songs to come as Steve’s political consciousness became more evident in his lyrics. His farewell to Townes van Zandt, “Fort Worth Blues” closes the LP. It’s beauty and honesty is a fitting tribute for such a friend and mentor. My own taste is for when the music surprises.

Well alright. Steve and the Supersuckers are wearing their leather jackets for this one. Man, how much do I love this story of meeting your young self along the road ? A fresh, modern take on rocking it country style…aaah…”slipped the kid a 20, said Billy give em hell”…a song for grown ups. In season 1 of “The Wire” Omar Little, a walking moral ambiguity, has to leave Baltimore . McNulty asks him why he is running to New York. “Must be something happening there. It’s just too big a town”, he replies. Now I was not convinced that a cold-hearted black killer would be too familiar with the work of Steve Earle. I saw the hand of David Simon or George Pelecanos making a sly in-joke. It made me laugh to hear the song referenced. Steve was to become more involved in Simon’s work in the future.

This is my favourite record by Steve Earle. It is the deal that I had been waiting for since “Guitar Town” in 1986, maybe since that young boy had sung “Mercenary Blues” in “Heartworn Highways”. Steve had to live a lot of life to get to this but he rode his luck, learned some stuff and made the most of the chance he got. It does not always follow that an artist’s work will be improved by such experience. I think that in his case it was.

I like this LP so much that I have to break my rule of only 3 clips at one time. “Here I Am” is another balls-out rocker with an unapologetic description of the “blood on your hands” you can be left with when you live by your heart rather than your head. A song written by an adult for adults. Life affirming music.

 

Hard Core Troubadour (Steve Earle: I Feel Alright)

If “Train A Comin’ ” was a good old boy getting straight and dipping more than a toe into the water then “I Feel Alright” is a headlong dive back into the pool. There are 12 new songs and from the opening track Steve announced that he was back and ready for whatever Life threw at him.

Steve was back with the Dukes and rocking it up again. This is the opener to the record and to the TV special “To Hell and Back”, filmed at a Tennessee correctional facility. Live at Folsom Prison it is not but it’s good to see him on such assertive and confident form.

It’s always good to see anyone break an addiction but, in some cases, it was the drugs or the booze or the sex which showed that individual’s fallibility and made them of interest. There is little worse than a “celebrity” ex-junkie who has only his, or her, past screw-ups by which to measure his, or her, life. I have seen “Some Kind Of Monster” and that James What’s His Name off of Metallica, someone get that man a drink and a line. He is dull, scared and scary. There are songs of loss and penitence on “I Feel Alright” but there is a determination and a self-awareness to leave the past and get on with the future. Steve Earle was 40 years old and when you reach that age an appreciation of the fact that things are more complicated than you had thought when you were 20 can be of assistance in your life and your work. This LP is the strongest, most consistent material he had recorded.

“CCKMP”, cocaine cannot kill my pain, is the most direct of these songs. A dark, beautiful blues, there are no contemporary clips of Steve performing this song when he was promoting the album. I don’t know why. Maybe Steve needed to put a bit of distance between himself and such an honest song. Maybe he did not want to be that guy so in your face about his former addictions or it just did not fit the rocking set he and the Dukes were playing. Whatever, any look back at this record without the inclusion of this song would be guilty of avoidance.

“To Hell and Back” includes a rocking version of “The Unrepentant” from the LP. “You’re Still Standing There” is shared with Lucinda Williams and is one of those near-duets that I like so much. I’ve chosen “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” because Steve and the Dukes are rocking and because, even though we can’t see his eyes, he looks happy to be back on a stage with his band and playing to a captive audience (sorry). It’s what he does and what he almost lost. In 1996 my friends and I were listening to Steve Earle again and we were happy about that too.

Off somewhere or just too high (steve earle train a comin’)

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.

Nothing is something that there’s plenty of. (Steve earle: The hard way)

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.