Jeremy Felt

A Steve Earle Listening Day

“I’m lucky with all this stuff. I’m employed, and I make an embarrassing amount of money for a borderline Marxist student.” – Steve Earle

There was something about the weather in Portland that made today a Steve Earle day. I think it’s the comfort of fall that brings up memories of countless Galway Girl listens. There was also the Neil Young (with awesome guests) performance of Rockin’ In The Free World last night that made me imagine Earle and Young performing together and how awesome it must be.

So here I am, inspired enough to listen to Steve Earle until I run out of time to listen today. Let’s do this.

Guitar Town (1986) starts off right with its title track and stays solid throughout. I was amused by this because I often have this self induced aversion to anything out of Nashville. Leave it to Earle to challenge me on that. The album is definitely more country than I now associate him with, but in a good way and enjoyable throughout.

Exit 0 (1987) is attributed to Steve Earle & The Dukes and starts off just as country as the last buit with a little more fire in his voice. I’m not familiar with this album yet, but it’s definitely prepping me for Copperhead Road. There are a lot of quality tracks here, but I’m going to go with I Ain’t Ever Satisfied as a favorite. I’m a sucker for a loose group backing vocal.

Copperhead Road (1988) is when the Steve Earle I’m familiar with really comes into frame. The emotion and the music just starts exploding. It’d be great to know what Nashville thought of this back then. The New York Times labeled it in their review as “exactly half of a brilliant album,” which is fairly correct. The first five tracks kick your ass, but the next go to sleep a bit. I can imagine a slight sense of disappointment when flipping that record to side b. It’s a toss up for a standout track, as I’m a big fan of the first track, but hearing The Pogues backing on Johnny Come Lately does it for me.

“I’m still the apple of my mama’s eye. I’m my daddy’s worst fears realized.” – The Other Kind, The Hard Way

From all accounts, The Hard Way (1990) happened during a tough time in Steve Earle’s life. His struggle with cocaine and heroin was nearing full force, and the album carries some of that burden. That aside, Earle’s natural ability for song writing allows it to be listenable and I did enjoy a few of the tracks. Have Mercy hits his addiction head on, Regular Guy has the Steve Earle kick I’m used to and Esmeralda’s Hollywood was probably the one with the most heart that I could hear.

Five years later, Train a Comin’(1995) hits with much improvement. The sound of guitars is sweet and the songwriter is back in the saddle. That this sound is so calm and focused is what makes everything stand out in chorus. I’m marking this album down as one of those that you just need to put on every once and a while to relax. Of course, while I’d recommend the full listen in this case, I’ll stick to the one song rule with Tom Ames’ Prayer.

“Because I’ve been to hell and now I’m back again.” – Feel Alright, I Feel Alright

I Feel Alright (1996) screams “I’m back” from the beginning when Earle proclaims the above. Where the last album was a quiet and steady reintroduction, this brings the feel of Copperhead Road back to the forefront. There are several stand outs here, including Feel Alright, Valentine’s Day, and Hurtin’ Me, Hurtin’ You, but my take away on this being a recovery album is going to be CCKMP. It’s quieter and darker than the rest and you get a sense of the struggle he’s gone through.

As a side note, this album is also the one throughout which I’ve kept an image of Earle’s totally positive character Walon, from The Wire, in my head. I think it lends even more authenticity to the role he played there.

El Corazón (1997) is a solid follow up and the third in a series of post-recovery records that comes through as being crafted by a songwriter on top of his game. Songs like Telephone Road and You Know the Rest are great. N.Y.C. is a total change of course with the punk (now cowpunk?) of Supersuckers powering a rock and roll Steve. And while I like it all, I’m going to go with If You Fall because I’m also a sucker for a good love song.

“In a word, they were cool…and advance level of cool that we had never encountered before.” – Steve Earle, on bluegrass players

The Mountain (1999) is a total shift from Earle’s normal countryish songwriting rock directly into absolute bluegrass. Earle plays all of the tracks with the Del McCoury Band, who are a long time standard bluegrass band. His love for bluegrass comes across strong in an essay that he wrote for Annie Leibovitz’s book, American Music. Per that same essay, the creation of this album was the “most profound learning experience” of his career. I really do recommend a listen as every song is fantastic. And what a closing song in Pilgrim, it speaks so much to Earle’s career and to his journey with music in general.

So, track time. I could easily go with my long time favorite Dixieland, which is such a brilliant song, and Leyroy’s Dustbowl Blues is a standout with its busy musicianship cruising through the song. But the closer, Pilgrim, does a powerful job of speaking to Earle’s general journey with music.

Trascendental Blues (2000) is a reminder that the foray into bluegrass was not permanent, but a learning experience indeed. It rocks from the beginning and mixes what he’s learned while away into the song craft that we’re used to. He even mixes in a fairly pure bluegrass song, Until the Day I Die, towards the end without even causing a flinch before busting back into straight rock and roll.

I’m enjoying this entire album, but there are two I’m going to have to share here. First is Galway Girl because I’ll listen to it any time it comes to mind. Such a wonderful song. The second is a new favorite, I Don’t Want To Lose You Yet, has a beautiful set of lyrics that bring up good memories.

Jerusalem (2002) has a dark beginning, almost industrial. The album itself is mostly a reaction to the events of and after 09/11. The first couple songs come across as powerful, but it then falls flat for a bit before picking up somewhat in the middle. Overall his message may be true, but the music seems forced at times. Of everything I enjoyed The Kind, Shadowland and Jerusalem the most. I’m going to go with the title track in the end though as the song fits the general theme of the album and the music is good.

Grammy winning The Revolution Starts Now (2004) seems to take the anger and worry from the previous few years and focus it a bit. The songs are constructed better and things don’t get lost as they did with Jerusalem. While the album ends really well, F The CC is a fun singer and Comin’ Around is my favorite duet yet with Emmylou Harris, I’m stuck more on Home To Houston as my most enjoyed track for the evening.

And here are the albums that I haven’t made it to yet. I’ll probably update this post with the results when I do just to have a comprehensive record for my perusal, but for now… a list!

There’s also the compilation of early tracks, rightfully named Early Tracks (1987), that I skipped listening due to its unavailability online at the moment. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to revisit that at some point as it sounds like a fun mix of rockabilly. It’s a grouping of tracks recorded early in Earle’s career before he got started with MCA.

And with that, I am now properly hooked on Steve Earle. Luckily I still have a few albums to listen to as well as the book or two in the works and the other couple already published. Unluckily, I totally missed his two appearances in Portland earlier this year, one for a show and one for a book tour. Next time.

Image of Steve Earle via MoEaFaTi on Flickr.

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