Category Archives: 1986

The Essentials: Steve Earle – Guitar Town

steve_earle_guitartownThere are a handful of artists and acts that can claim credit for the laying the foundation for the alt. country/Americana scene that went mainstream during the early ‘90s, beginning with the most obvious: Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.

Steve Earle is another.

Guitar Town, his 1986 debut, digs deep into the day-to-day life experienced by denizens of the forgotten America. By the mid-‘80s, factories were shutting down, farms going belly-up, and the dream of a better future seemed out of reach for many – as Earle articulates with journalistic precision on such songs as “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough),” “Someday” and “Hillbilly Highway.”

At the time, the music was deemed too country for rock and too rock for country; yet, despite that, the album made its way to No. 1 on the country charts. The title track made it to No. 7 and “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left” made it to No. 8.

In the years since its release, the album has been deemed one of the best of its time. Rolling Stone, for example, ranks it (too low) at No. 79 on its “Best Albums of the Eighties” list and at No. 482 on its Greatest Albums of All Time list.

Younger listeners may be shocked by the album’s relative brevity – it clocks in at just under 35 minutes. Make no mistake, however: There are no throwaways here.

The songs:

  1. Guitar Town
  2. Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left
  3. Hillbilly Highway
  4. Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)
  5. My Old Friend The Blues
  6. Someday
  7. Think It Over
  8. Fearless Heart
  9. Little Rock ‘N’ Roller
  10. Down The Road

Today’s Top 10: It Was 30 Years Ago Today…

psu_desk_86001Thirty years ago today I was but a few weeks into my senior year of college. The picture to the left is of my desk in my dorm room, and it tells much about me then – a print of the Gilbert Williams painting “Celestial Visitation,” which is probably known to most as the cover of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s 1982 Daylight Again album; beside it, the fold-out poster that came with Madonna’s True Blue LP; my Ballad of Sally Rose button, which I purchased the previous year when I saw Emmylou Harris in concert, is beneath it; and, beneath that, a picture of the Beatles, circa 1967, that was taken by Linda Eastman (though I didn’t know it at the time). To the left of that: a postcard from the Wings Fun Club that looked cool to me; and, beneath that, a Marilyn Monroe postcard. I can’t make out the rest, but suffice it to say that I had one foot in the past, another in the present, and an ear for hip country sounds.

According to the Weather Underground, September 5th, 1986, was a rainy day in State College, home of the Penn State mothership, with a high of 75 degrees and a low of 55. Hot movies that summer included She’s Gotta Have It, Stand by Me and The Fly; and Shanghai Surprise, which starred Madonna and Sean Penn, had cratered at the box office the previous weekend. In America at large, the economy was still in the midst of rebounding from the nasty recession of 1981-82; the unemployment rate at the start and end of the month clocked in at seven percent – not a great number, but much better than the double-digit rates of late 1982 and early ’83 – and inflation, at all of 1.8 percent, was a non-factor.

The state of my personal economy was fairly good, too: I had a summer’s worth of savings thanks to full-time shifts at a department store back home. I continued selling my plasma twice a week like clockwork, most weeks, and rented out my student pass for Nittany Lion home games; while I attended every tailgate, I actually only saw one game during my two years at main campus. (And no regrets about that, either.) My expenses consisted primarily of fast-food, alcohol and cigarettes.

Looking back, the ‘80s were somewhat like a snow globe: America was shaken at its start, but everything settled into place by decade’s end. That the era is often derided for its fashion miscues, pop music and political retrenchment is a shame; there was much good to be found. As for 1986? It’s likely remembered most for the tragedy that begat the year, the Challenger disaster –

– but the year was far more than that sad day.

Anyway, inspired both by Herc’s Hideaway’s recent countdown of the Top 100 Albums of 1984 (the link takes you to the Top 10; navigate to older posts and you’ll find his 11-90 entries), here’s my Top 10 from ’86. Why that year? Well, “It Was 30 Years Ago Today” has a nice ring to it…

1) Paul Simon – Graceland. Selected track: “The Boy in the Bubble.” Rolling Stone recently ran down 10 Things You Didn’t Know about the album, which was released on Aug. 25, 1986. To my ears, it sounds as fresh today as it did then. The title track is sheer genius, and I almost spotlighted it, but this song contains what may well be the one line I quote more than any other (by any artist): “Every generation sends a hero up the pop charts.”

2) The Bangles – Different Light. Selected track: “If She Knew What She Wants.” Yeah, some folks may not rank this album quite as high as me, but – I loved it then, and I love it now. Back when it was released, in early ’86, much of my music purchases was on cassette – they took up less room and, too, I had a cassette deck in my car. I actually played my original tape so much that you could hear the music on the flip side bleeding through.

A quick side-note: Those top two picks are easy enough for me to recall, as I noted them at the time; and have kept them on one list or another every year since. Numbers 3 on – I’m guesstimating to an extent, as they’re albums that I loved then and still enjoy today. Where, exactly, they fall…that’s up for (internal) debate.

3) Dwight Yoakam – Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. Selected track: “Honky Tonk Man,” the lead single to Dwight’s debut album, is a remake of a classic Johnny Horton song. It’s just plain intoxicating; and, at the time, it sent out a signal that Yoakam was pursuing a more purist sound than the era’s Urban Cowboy-flavored norm.

4) Steve Earle – Guitar Town. Selected track: “Guitar Town.” Another country-music outsider, another great debut. It was considered too country for rock audiences and too rock for country folk, but it found its niche with those of us who liked both.

5) Belinda Carlisle – Belinda. Selected track: “Mad About You.” The former (and future) lead singer of the Go-Go’s released her solo debut during the early summer, and it’s a gem. As with the four preceding entries, it’s an album I still listen to on a regular basis. And here’s some trivia: Andy Taylor (of Duran Duran) plays the guitar solo on this song; and the album also features former Wings guitarist Laurence Juber and non-Rolling Stone Nicky Hopkins in addition to fellow Go-Go Charlotte Caffey, who wrote one of the songs and co-wrote four others.

6) Robert Cray – Strong Persuader. Selected track: “Smoking Gun.” As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, part of my time at Penn State included spinning discs on the weekend Folk Show on WPSU. I first learned of Cray in late ’85 or early ’86 from a fellow deejay, and – as a result – already owned one of his other albums, Bad Influence, which was a good, not great, affair. This release was simply phenomenal, and this song… well, you kinda know something’s an instant classic when a bar band in the boondocks, aka Bellefonte, Pa., plays it – and that’s exactly what happened sometime in… egads. Late ’86? Early ’87? God only knows…

7) Madonna – True Blue. Selected track: “Papa Don’t Preach.” Yeah, yeah, some people will undoubtedly smirk upon seeing Madonna’s name in this list, but I have no shame. I loved it then, as evidenced by the poster above my dorm-room desk, and still find it enjoyable today. It was also the last of her albums that I liked from start-to-finish.

8) Van Morrison – No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. Selected track: “In the Garden.” One of my favorite Van albums, and one of his all-time best. Words really don’t do it justice.

9) Nanci Griffith – Lone Star State of Mind. Selected track: “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret).” I discovered Nanci through the Folk Show the year before; one of her songs was on a Fast Folk Musical Magazine sampler (this one, in fact) that I found in WPSU’s record library; and this song, which was originally recorded for her 1978 debut, was another that I showcased on occasion.

10) Lone Justice – Shelter. Selected track: “Wheels.” Lone Justice Mach II wasn’t on a par with the original lineup, and this sophomore set wasn’t as strong as the original lineup’s 1985 debut. Yet, even with that, it contains some of Maria McKee’s greatest songs, including “I Found Love,” the title cut, “Dixie Storms” and this.

In retrospect, there are other albums I’d rank higher than a few of these – Janet Jackson’s Control, for instance, deserves mention – but I didn’t become familiar with them until the late ’80s, when I worked in a new-fangled CD store. But that’s a post for another day…

Today’s Top 5: January/February 1986 (via Record Magazine)

IMG_5179This is the last issue that I have of Record magazine. Whether this was the last issue, I do not know, though that’s my hunch – the mailing slip lists my subscription’s end date as June 1986, and I can’t imagine I would’ve tossed those issues out. (I was something of a packrat when it came to anything music-related. I still am, though less so.) Anything is possible, though.

Anyway, by the time I received this issue in the mail, I was 20; and starting my second semester at the Penn State mothership. An English major with an emphasis in Creative Writing: that was me. I was also a deejay, though I was not all that I played; as I’ve written elsewhere, I was one of the rotating hosts on the Folk Show, which aired on the student-run WPSU-FM. “Folk,” on my twice-monthly stints, had a rather broad definition, especially when in my preferred 6am-10am Saturday- or Sunday-morning slot; I played everything from stereotypical folk music (Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Holly Near) to the Fugs and even Elvis Costello circa Almost Blue. “A Good Year for the Roses,” which I discovered via a listener request, became a semi-staple for the rest of my days on the air.

Another semi-staple: Neil Young’s haunting rendition of “Home on the Range” from the Where the Buffalo Roam soundtrack.

All of which leads to Today’s Top 5: January/February 1986 via Record magazine. It’s really more of a 1985 overview…

1) Don Henley – “The Boys of Summer.” Henley, who’s back on top of the charts with his Cass County album, graces the cover of the issue, as the above picture shows; and inside is an interview conducted by Bud Scoppa, who calls him a “seasoned 38-year-old artist” in the introduction. Henley was two albums into a successful solo career after a decade-long stint with the Eagles, and flying high on the strength of the hit “Boys of Summer” from Building the Perfect Beast, which had been released the previous fall. “I’m not ashamed of having been in the Eagles,” he says in the interview. “I think we accomplished a great deal and added some pretty good music to the annals of rock ’n’ roll. Some of it was crap, and I hated some of it, but when you’re in a group, you can’t get everything you want.”

I liked the Eagles; and I liked Henley’s first solo effort, I Can’t Stand Still. Building the Perfect Beast, I thought (and still think), was slightly better – not a four- or five-star release, mind you, but enjoyable nonetheless. “Sunset Grill” and “A Month of Sundays,” for instance, are excellent. But no song of his, not even with the Eagles, is as good as the one he crafted with Mike Campbell from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: “The Boys of Summer.”

“I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac/A little voice inside my head said don’t look back, you can never look back…”

IMG_51852) Bruce Springsteen – “My Hometown.” This issue includes a Critic’s Poll of the best of everything for the preceding year. Thirty-two of the magazine’s contributors put forth their picks, and the results were tallied: Henley’s “Boys of Summer” was voted the top Single of the Year; and Springsteen was voted Artist of the Year. Since releasing Born in the U.S.A. in 1984, he’d embarked on a mega-successful tour that played arenas and stadiums; to paraphrase the piece, he won over a legion of new fans while retaining the longtime faithful, who didn’t hold his newfound popularity against him. “[P]eople still believe they can expect something from Springsteen—and, in the age of diminished expectations, that’s saying something.”

A few months back, thanks to a gift certificate our friend Luanne gave me to HDTracks, I picked up (i.e., downloaded) the high-res reissue of Born in the U.S.A. Not a five-star album, but one that – like Building the Perfect Beast – has its moments, many of which were released as singles. (In fact, seven of its 12 songs became Top 10 hits.) “My Hometown,” especially, resonates with me now in a way it didn’t back then.

IMG_51893) Suzanne Vega – “Marlene on the Wall.” “A walk for New York’s updated folkie Suzanne Vega, on the strength of her melodic, poetic Suzanne Vega LP,” says the Best Debuts paragraph in the Critics Poll. I first heard Vega when I played this song on the air early one morning; a fellow Folk Show deejay recommended her at a staff meeting, I think.

The other artists singled out: Lone Justice, Guadalcanal Diary, Sade, Whitney Houston, Zeitgeist, Dwight Yoakam, Katrina and the Waves, Fishbone and Freddie jackson.

IMG_51954) Neil Young – “After Berlin.” There, on page 40, is a full-page ad for Neil Young in Berlin, an 11-song strong representation of a 1982 West Berlin concert that was due out on VHS on January 13, 1986. There’s also a review of the video, which basically laments its brevity: “[W]hat lingers is the hunger for a show with the scope Young’s career demands. Still, Young’s phenomenal guitar work (the man’s improvisation rides an arc between convulsion and exorcism) ignites incendiary versions of ‘Cinnamon Girl,’ ‘Like a Hurricane’ and ‘Hey Hey, My My,” and these, plus the side-splitting techno-ballet performed by Neil and fellow space cadet Nils Lofgren on ‘Transformer Man,’ make Berlin, at the very least, worth a rental.”

The review doesn’t mention “After Berlin.” It’s a great lost song – and, by that, I mean part of its greatness is that it was left behind, forever etched in a specific place and time. He wrote it in the afternoon, played it that night and never looked back. “Can’t go back to where I started from/the road goes on and on….”

IMG_51985) Richard Thompson – “When the Spell Is Broken.” Another Folk Show staple. Thompson, of course, came from Fairport Convention, the English folk-rock band that also introduced the world to Sandy Denny; and his work with wife Linda was widely heralded. This song leads off his 1985 Across a Crowded Room LP, which the Critics Poll lists as No. 9 on the Albums of the Year list; the album is also named “Most Overlooked.” As a whole, it’s said, it was inspired by his divorce from Linda.  This song, my favorite from the set, features barbed guitar and lyrics: “Don’t swear your heart/from the very start/love letters you wrote/get pushed back down your throat/and leave you choking/when the spell is broken.”