Category Archives: Steve Earle

The Essentials: Steve Earle – Guitar Town

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

There 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
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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) Hank Williams Jr. – Hank Live! Selected track: “My Name Is Bocephus” It may seem bizarre to some that I was (and, to an extent, still am) a fan of Hank Jr. But I am. At his best, he’s authentic country and authentic southern rock. He released a string of what I consider good-to-great albums throughout the 1980s – 13 studio albums and this live set (plus three greatest hits collections). Think about that for a second. Most acts release, what? An album every other year (if we’re lucky)? He was on a roll. This song is one of my favorites by him, though it’s likely not the performance from the album.

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 1999 (via Da Boot!)

IMG_5395Da Boot! was an excellent idea: a fanzine devoted primarily to collector CDs, which were all the rage in the 1990s. Just as I reviewed bootleg CDs on my old website, we aimed to do the same in print, vowing to separate the wheat from the chaff. Myself and the two other principles, plus my wife Diane, leveraged my website, which attracted more than 100 eyeballs every day, and what might best be called pre-social media (i.e., mailing lists, for anyone who remembers them), and pushed our subscribers from none to 100 or so  – at $11.25 for six issues – within a few months. (Old copies sometimes appear, alone or in bunches, on Ebay, believe it or not. Here’s a recent example.)

IMG_5406Most folks likely signed on because of our initial inducement, which promised the first 60 subscribers true collector CDs – radio shows, such as King Biscuit Flower Hour or Reeiin’ in the Years. International CD, which was run by the CD-store barker I wrote about in Juliana Hatfield’s Bed, Unmade, provided the radio shows in exchange for a few full-page ads. It was a bargain, to say the least – for us, not him. He basically invested, in the abstract, $600. (Legitimate radio shows, back then, routinely sold for anywhere from $10 to $20 a disc, though he likely bought them for a few bucks a pop.)

What initially doomed the venture: the company we worked for was sold, depriving us of our printing press. I.e., we had no overhead beyond buying the CDs we reviewed because we used the company’s color printer and ink. What would have doomed us, anyway: the tectonic forces of CD burners and file-sharing sites, aka Napster and its clones, which reshaped the landscape of the music industry legitimate and illicit. Why buy a $30 bootleg when you can download the same for free? (And sound quality becomes a non-issue, then. If it sucks, so be it; it’s not like you lost money.) Or, better, join a mailing-list “tree” that cost you the price of a CDR and postage. You received a CDR in the mail, made a copy and sent it on to the next person on the list.

What would have doomed it, for me, in the long run: bootlegs were beginning to bore me. That’s grist for another post, though.

Anyway, today’s Top 5 is drawn from the January-February issue of Da Boot!. It sports a cover story on Bruce Springsteen; although we were a bootleg-centric ‘zine, our focus also included legitimate releases, concerts and books – anything collectors that were interested in, basically.

IMG_5399

1) Bruce Springsteen – “Frankie.” Diane’s cover story on Bruce goes in-depth into Tracks, the then-recent Songs tome, upcoming reunion tour with the E Street Band, and his soon-to-be induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Diane writes: “Vis-a-vis the thorny issue of the Hall of Fame inducting only Bruce Springsteen sans the E Streeters, I am of a mixed mindset. On one hand, I don’t think the E Streeters would have been thought of as Hall of Famers sans Bruce. However, having sat through four tortuous shows during the Human Touch/Lucky Town tour, I realize how very badly Bruce needed them. Chills still run down my body, a body that becomes very clammy whenever I think of Crystal Taliaferro’s sax solos on ‘Born to Run.’ When Joseph Conrad writes ‘The horror, the horror,” I am sure he is referring to the Heart of Darkness that was that tour.”

IMG_54002) Lucinda Williams – “Joy.” My Album of the Year for 1998 was Lucinda’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Small surprise, I suppose, but it also lead this article, which recaps the Top 5 Albums of 1998 as chosen by me and a few others. I wrote: “In years to come, folks will write about Car Wheels with the same reverence that they do for such genre-busting albums as the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo or Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road—it’s that good, if not better. Delivering a platter of sensual confessions (“Right in Time”) and sinewy, guitar-driven jousts (“Joy”), Lucinda offers a stew of sublime, superb and incredible songs, tasty morsels all. This isn’t just the best album of the year—it’s one of the best albums of the decade, period.”

3) Emmylou Harris – “Prayer in Open D.” Emmy’s live Spyboy was a runner-up for Album of the Year honors, as the article above shows. I wrote: “Her voice shimmers across a foggy lake, a virtual beacon for lost souls to follow. Emmylou flies high on this deft collection of songs spanning her career, from ‘My Songbird’  to ‘Where Will I Be,” the keynote track off 1996’s atmospheric studio foray Wrecking Ball.” “Prayer in Open D” is one of my favorites by her. It hails from her overlooked 1993 Cowgirl’s Prayer album, but she played it with the Spyboy band, too, and it’s on the Spyboy album. It’s a classic.

IMG_54014) Maria McKee – “Breathe.” The Little Diva’s 1998 stop in Philly is one of the first concerts that comes to mind when I think back on the many shows I’ve attended. Diane and I were literally an arm’s length away from her; and it was, suffice it to say, an absolutely stunning show. Anyway, I reviewed it in this issue. “It’s music for the psyche that she’s after,” I wrote. “It’s music of and for the soul.” I’d quote from it a bit more, but I mined this review for a semi-recent Of Concerts Past post. This song, which she performed that night, dates to her solo debut in 1989 and the clip comes the same basic time frame, when she appeared on USA’s Night Flight show.

IMG_54055) Steve Earle – “Fort Worth Blues” & “I Feel Alright.” I reviewed two Steve Earle bootlegs: Come Back Woody Guthrie, on Copperhead Records, and Do Not Try This at Home!, on Doberman. Of the former, I wrote “[T]he guitars are mixed too low. Those thud-thick, Crazy Horse-like chords of ‘Taneytown,’ for instance, come off tinny and thin.’ Of the latter, I wrote: “Sourced from a crystal-clear audience tape, the guitars are blunt instruments bashing out ominous, yet addictive, chords.” Later, I spotlighted the set’s heart: “There’s perhaps not a more chilling moment on either boot—or on the tour, period—than the coupling of ‘Fort Worth Blues’ and ‘I Feel Alright.’ Written for the late Townes Van Zandt, ‘Fort Worth Blues’ chronicles the travails of a hardcore troubadour who comes across signs that remind him of a lost friend. And while Steve’s singing for Townes, he—you, me—knows the song could just as easily have been written for and about him. It’s no accident, then, that ‘I Feel Alright’ follows. There’s not a better, brasher declaration of survival: “I’ve been through hell but now I’m back again.”

And, one bonus…

IMG_54086) Bruce Springsteen – “The Promise.” Diane digs into the three-CD Deep Down in the Vaults bootleg. “When Jeff said that there were actually bootlegs created to accompany Tracks, I was somewhat skeptical. But having experienced Deep Down in the Vaults, I am a convinced woman.” She closes with: “[It] doesn’t have the omissions that critics bemoaned in Tracks. It includes ‘The Promise,’ and ‘Missing.’ Even so, I prefer Tracks, the ultimate non-bootleg boot.” (“The Promise” eventually surfaced on the one-CD 18 Tracks, released in 1999, and again on the 2010 Darkness on the Edge of Town companion album The Promise, which gathered alternate versions and unreleased songs from the Darkness sessions.)