Just a Regular Guy: An Introduction to the Music of Steve Earle


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    Music Guru Trollheart's Avatar
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    Just a Regular Guy: An Introduction to the Music of Steve Earle

    Just a Regular Guy, Doin' it the Hard Way
    An Introduction To Steve Earle
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    Part I: “I Wonder What's Over That Rainbow?”

    There have of course been crossover acts for almost as long as music has been popular, from early jazz fusing with emerging rock'n'roll, blues tipping over into motown, even classical music has made the leap, at times, into a new and perhaps unexpected genre (remember those sexy lady violinists, Bond?). But one of the major crossovers in the past twenty years or so has been the slow and sometimes unnoticed proliferation of country and western as it sticks a cowboy boot gingerly over the fence into rock country, and pop country. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but in general country has become more accepted in the pop/rock sector these days than perhaps it would have been in earlier decades.


    The likes of Leanne Rimes, Faith Hill, and (shudder!) Garth Brooks have all flown the flag for country in the pop arena, and of course the most successful and highest-profile crossover has been the Eagles, who made country music cool with their Hotel California album, bringing country to a whole new audience. Granted, there are those who would say that album is about as far removed from country as Dave Grohl is from chamber music, but the fact remains that, whatever they morphed into along the way, the Eagles began their careers as a full-out country band - just listen to their earlier albums if you doubt me.

    Of course, as Gloria Estefan once wrote, it cuts both ways, and more than one established rock or pop star has tried their hand at penning or singing country songs, again with mixed results. There are many reasons why a singer or band specialising in one area of music will try to break into another, or often more than one, the first and usually most important being cash: it's obvious that if you start out as, say, a blues guitarist and then break into the pop circuit, or indeed the country realm, you make more converts to your music and this translates into more sales, both of albums and concert tickets, to say nothing of the ever-lucrative merchandising deals. All of which equals more Dollars, Euro, Sterling or the currency of your choice in your bank account, or more likely, your manager and/or record label's account!

    But there can be other reasons. Sometimes, it's a genuine interest in another music form, an experiment if you will, that causes your music to reach new ears. Sometimes it's boredom and frustration at perhaps the restrictions your particular area of music places upon you (not too many wild guitar solos in the world of electronica, nor songs about cowsheds or truck drivers in the punk pantheon!), and sometimes it may of course be your label pushing you to explore new territory, ie give them more opportunities to make money out of you! Then of course there is the chance meeting/jam with someone from another music spectrum who, after having played with them, opens your eyes as an artist to new possibilities you had perhaps not before considered.


    And then of course, there's chance, or more correctly word-of-mouth, the fact that your music just sort of organically grows outside its own limits, when people come to see you play, or hear you on the radio or see you on the TV (or these days, stumble across you via Youtube et al!), or even are recommended your music, either through a friend or an article in a magazine, and suddenly you find that you have a lot of new fans, and though your music is not exactly what they would usually listen to, it's making the transition and you're becoming more than the sum of your parts.

    Where these crossovers have been less successful though, in general, is from country to rock. Country to pop, certainly, but actual rock? Not too many have made that transition, and whereas some rock and metal acts have flirted with the inclusion of country tracks on their albums (we all remember Poison's “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”, of course, and to some extent Bon Jovi's “Wanted Dead Or Alive” could be considered at least partially country in its themes if not its actual execution, as could their “Dry County”), typically the avenue has been more or less one-way and quite limited.


    All of which leads us, via a very meandering road, to a young man who at age 14 decided what he wanted to do more than anything else in the world was play music. Stephen Fain Earle began a music career under the patronage of legendary country folkster Townes Van Zandt, and although his first actual album was more a rockabilly affair than a country one, what is generally accepted to be his first “real” album, Guitar Town, is pure country. Released in 1986, its themes explore mostly the feeling of being at a loose end, or a crossroads in your life, the idea of being left behind, feeling the world is passing you by, and somehow knowing that there is something better out there. Most of the songs on the album reflect this, including the title track, “Hillbilly Highway” and “Someday”, while others tackle other issues, issues that were to crop up and become more important in Earle's later life, and recordings.


    “Think it over” and “Goodbye's All We Got Left” are standard songs about love, however they're not as might be expected ballads. The former tips a nod back to Earle's early (ahem!) days with rockabilly, whereas “Goodbye...” is a straight-ahead country-rocker. “Good Ol' Boy (Getting' Tough)” is a rant against the way the “little guy” is getting stepped on in Modern America, and how hard it is to get by, a theme that would re-occur through his later albums. He sings of his truck which ”Belongs to me and the bank/ And some funny-talkin' guy from Iran.”


    Though there were some inklings of the rock power that would come to the fore on his later recordings here, Guitar Town, despite its rock'n'roll title, is primarily a country album, and it would take his next release, Exit 0 before the true rock roots would begin to break through. Nevertheless, his debut did get him nominated for two Grammys and noticed by mostly rock critics, whereas the country boys didn't seem to get it, at first. This would change with time, and in 2006 it was recognised by CMT (Country Music TV, the country equivalent of MTV) as one of the forty greatest country albums of all time. Not only that, but country legend Emmylou Harris covered the title track, no doubt a great honour to Earle.

    The next year saw the release of that second album, the altogether more rocky Exit 0. With songs like “Angry Young Man”, “The Rain Came Down” and “San Antonio Girl”, the country was still there but was now beefed up by music that could comfortably sit alongside any rocker's music collection. It was rock, Jim, but not as we know it. There were still the country songs (and probably always will be on Earle's albums, as he's never denied or disparaged his connection to country music), like “Nowhere Road”, “No. 29” and the hugely enjoyable “Week of Living Dangerously”, plus some classy ballads. Credited to “Steve Earle and the Dukes”, the Dukes being his backing band, this was one of only two albums that bore that legend, and led to another two Grammy nominations for Steve.


    It wasn't however until the following year that Earle broke completely over into the rock spectrum, with the release of 1988's Copperhead Road. The album earned praise from both Rolling Stone and The New York Times, and established Earle as a bona-fide rock artist, albeit with country blood (or, one suspects, oil!) in his veins. He took two years to craft his next album, also released as “Steve Earle and the Dukes”, and in 1990 The Hard Way was released. Far more a rock record with echoes of country, this was how much of Steve's output (with some notable exceptions) would turn out from now on. It's a powerful album, with not one bad track, dealing with themes as diverse as the death penalty (“Billy Austin”), political responsibility (“When the People Find Out”) and murder (“Justice in Ontario”). Much of the mood of the album is centred on individuality or maverickism (is that a word?), like opener “The Other Kind”, and more powerfully “This Highway's Mine (Roadmaster)”.

    Steve Earle's gritty voice is a sort of a cross between Tom Waits, Kenny Rogers's tougher brother and Springsteen, and he possesses a natural flair for tapping into the mind and heart of the common man. He writes songs about people primarily, making points - political, religious or philosophical - through the medium of his lyrics. He does not shy away from the more difficult, controversial topics, as evidenced on his 2002 outing Jerusalem, where he wrote “John Walker's Blues”, a song about John Walker Lindh, an American who joined the Taliban. His use of the phrase “There is no god but God” in the lyric, and the Islamic chant in the chorus, got a lot of people's backs up, but did not stop him from including it on the album.
    Renegade, maverick, lone wolf... call him what you will, Earle is not afraid to stand up for, and more importantly, write and sing about, what he believes in, and what he believes is right. A staunch opponent of the death penalty, he has written many songs on the subject, spoken at rallies and written about it, and campaigned heavily against the taking of a man's life for his crimes. He has been in trouble with the law himself, in his earlier days running guns and being involved with drugs, activities which eventually landed him in jail. On his release in 1994 he had kicked the heroin habit and began turning his life around, recording and releasing two albums in the same year. Almost.

    Personally, Train a-comin’ wasn't for me. Returning to his country roots, Earle recorded the album acoustically, and played with some other famous country stars on the album, including Emmylou herself. I need to listen to it more, perhaps, but my first impressions of it were such that, personally, I never felt the urge to revisit it. Perhaps that's something long overdue. At any rate, the album was again nominated for a Grammy (his first nomination since Exit 0, tellingly), and was joined fifteen months later by I Feel Alright, again with a country feel but more of the rock idea we had got used to on albums like Copperhead Road and The Hard Way. I like this album, and although as mentioned I probably didn't give Train a-comin' the attention it may deserve, this felt like an album of release, that is to say, it sounded like someone coming out of the darkness and into the light.

    The opening tracks, the title track and follow-up “Hard Core Troubadour” set the mood for the album, and it's almost impossible not to hear the cries of “Hallelujah! I have been saved!” in the joyful lyrics, which is not to in any way slight Earle's time in jail, and the changes it forced upon him, or to suggest that he “found God” in jail: so far as I know, he's not a believer. But there is a definite sense of redemption about this album. Perhaps a weaker man would have given up after two years of incarceration, and addiction to Sweet Lady H, but Steve Earle seems to prove the old quote “That which does not kill me only makes me stronger.” Interestingly, there's a track on it called “South Nashville Blues”, whereas on The Hard Way you can find “West Nashville Boogie.”

    One thing seemed clear from the message, both in the album title and the songs: Steve Earle was back, feelin’ fine, and about to set the world alight! Or at least, heat it up a little.
    Last edited by Trollheart; September 17th, 2019 at 06:53 PM.
    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

  2. #2
    I happen to like Steve Earle a lot, especially his output in the 2000s. Jerusalem, with it's anti-war message, is one of the most powerful statements of the decade. Transcendental Blues is another album that I like a lot. I'm assuming you're planning a more detailed review. If so, I'm looking forward to see it.
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    Music Guru Trollheart's Avatar
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    Oh yeah, this is just skimming the surface. I'll be reviewing all the albums in due course.
    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

  4. #4
    I got to see Steve along with Lucinda Williams back in the early 2000s (or it may have been 1999). He had a good lead guitarist from what I remember (or that might have been Lucinda). I wouldn't say it was a great concert, but it was okay. It probably would have been better in a nightclub than the Fillmore.

    I'd play Copperhead Road sometimes at a song circle I used to play in and try to sound like him, although it would kind of rip your vocal chords to shreds. It had that distinctive break after the chorus with the droning notes which was fun to play.

    To me, Earle is more of an alt-country artist than country-rock, though.

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    Music Guru Trollheart's Avatar
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    Part II: The Revolution Starts....

    Obviously energised by his release back into society, Steve kept up the pressure and the next year saw the release of what I personally believe to be one of his finest albums, 1997's El Corazon. Spanish for heart, the title said it all, and the songs are certainly written from the heart. A lighter tone characterises the album, though you wouldn't guess it from opener “Christmas in Washington”, a politically-heavy fugue, or second track, “Taneytown”, addressing racial segregation, but the bulk of the songs are stories of love and life, like “I Still Carry You Around”, “If You Fall”, “Somewhere Out There” and “Here I Am”, with some positively jokey ones like “You Know the Rest” and “NYC”. This is an album of songs by a man who has testified, repented and made amends, and now just wants to get back to having fun making music. Steve also employed the talents of the Del McCoury Band on one of the tracks here, an outfit with whom he would later collaborate on an entire album, The Mountain. I can't comment on that album, as I haven't heard it, but I believe it was basically bluegrass in nature, and well received.

    Halfway through the first year of the new millennium and I had a definite favourite Steve Earle album. Transcendental Blues is a real return to form for Steve, featuring two “Irish” songs, the exuberant “Steve's Last Ramble”, on which he's accompanied by accordion star Sharon Shannon, and she also contributes to “The Galway Girl”, another fine piece of songwriting, and damn good fun! The album has its darker side though, particularly the closer, “Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)”, which again tackles the subject of the death penalty. This song was in fact based on a real person, whom Earle wrote to in prison and whose execution, at the prisoner's request, he attended. It's a powerful, emotional song, carrying as it does the last wishes and testament of the condemned man: ”Send my bible home to momma/ Call her every now and then” and where he apologises to his victim(s) and those left behind to mourn them: ”The world'll turn around without me/ Sun'll come up in the east/ Shinin' down on those who hate me/ I hope my going gives 'em peace.” You can't help but be moved. The only low point on the album, for me, is “The Boy Who Never Cried”. It's a doomy, plodding, quite boring and frankly monotonous song, which does not belong on this, or indeed any Steve Earle album. I've listened to it quite a few times, trying to like it, trying to see if there is something there I'm missing, but it now induces me to press the SKIP button whenever I spin this album. On balance though, definitely in the top three Steve Earle albums in my opinion.

    It was two years before Steve's next album, and to be perfectly honest, I was disappointed. After the unshackled brilliance of Transcendental Blues, I found Jerusalem very much lacking. There are good songs on it, but few great ones. It's based on a concept of America post-9/11, and this is reflected in the second track, “Amerika v 6.0”. Subtitled (“The Best That We Can Do”) it's fairly obvious that the spelling of America is meant to reflect a sort of shadowy neo-Nazi/far right political force which Earle believes (probably quite rightly) is threatening the American way of life, and capitalising on the tragedy of the September 11th attacks. It's a harsh, unforgiving song, with little time for the “America the brave” jingoism that characterised much of the output from the US in the years 2001-2002. The lyric speaks for itself: ”There's doctors down on Wall Street/ Sharpenin' their scalpels and tryin' to cut a deal/ Meanwhile, back at the hospital/ We got accountants playin' God and countin' out the pills/ Yeah, I know, that sucks – that your HMO/ Ain't doin' what you thought it would do...”

    The tone of the album doesn't really lighten, except for one or two tracks like “I Remember You” with backing vocals by the great Emmylou Harris, “Go Amanda” (with help from Sheryl Crow) and the closer and title track. It's an album for realists, and there's little hope, false or otherwise, there. Steve plays a virtual plethora of instruments on the album, from guitar and mandolin to bass, organ and harmonica, and yet still assembles a full band, including one Patrick Earle on drums. Whether he's a relation to Steve or not I don't know, though his sister Stacey does sing on Transcendental Blues.

    This ain't an album you put on if you're a) a flag-waving patriot or b) depressed and want to cheer up, but it's a very gritty, powerful, outspoken and indeed brave recording, in particular the inclusion of “John Walker's Blues”, which as already mentioned was about an American, John Walker Lindh, who “defected” to join the Taliban, and was therefore considered a traitor by most Americans. Steve takes a very straightforward and non-partisan look at what makes someone do such a thing, but of course even though he was careful not to be seen to be supporting terrorism, he got accused of it anyway, leading him to remark that he was simply empathizing with Lindh and attempting to understand his motivation through song rather than glorifying or forgiving terrorism. He said that, as a parent, he was moved by pictures of Lindh bound to a stretcher. "For some reason when I saw him on TV, I related it to my son. That skinny and that age, exactly. I thought, he's got parents somewhere, and they must be sick.” (Courtesy Wikipedia, from David McGee's “Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet”)

    Steve's next release would be two years later again, when in 2004 he unleashed The Revolution Starts Now, timed as it happened to coincide with the eventually failed (ie doomed) presidential bid by Democratic candidate John Kerry. The album is bracketed by tracks entitled “The Revolution Starts...” as an opener and the full title track for the closer, and features a lot of (as expected) songs directed against the war against terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and US foreign policy in general. Songs like “The Gringo's Tale”, “Rich Man's War”, “Warrior” and the hilariously tongue-in-cheek “Condi, Condi” all form part of Steve's mission statement for this album. But it has its lighter side too. “Home to Houston” is the tale of a trucker working in Iraq who just wants to get back home, while “I Thought You Should Know” is a beautiful little piece of bittersweet country waltz, which would be at home in the hands of Willie Nelson, Randy Travis or even the late great Man in Black himself. Superb.

    But the best track on the album I believe is the side-splittingly titled “F the CC”, which contains the glorious lyric ”F**k the FCC/ F**k the FBI/ F**k the CIA/ Livin' in the motherf**kin' USA!” Oh Steve, you rebel, youl! I'm sure many artists would agree with you. Again we see Patrick Earle in the credits, drumming away, and I'm beginning to feel like this may be Steve's own son?

    Three years later, and having scooped a Grammy for The Revolution Starts Now, Steve returned with Washington Square Serenade, itself also winning a Grammy, and the first of his albums to feature his current (and seventh!) wife, Alison Moorer, on one of the tracks, “Days Aren't Long Enough”. It's a powerful album, continuing many of the themes explored on the previous outing, with probably one of the best tracks on it being the almost nuclear-angry “Red is the Colour”, on which you can just sense the veins throbbing on Earle's powerful neck as he spits out ”Bad news everybody talkin’ ‘bout/ A short fuse a half an inch from burnin’ out/ All used up beyond a reasonable doubt/ Make way for his majesty the prodigal king/ Still taste the poison when you’re kissin’ the ring/ Don’t say he never gave you anything !”

    That aside though, the highlight for me is that he includes a really good cover of one of Tom Waits' songs, “Way Down in the Hole”, from Frank's Wild Years. Apparently his version of the song replaced the one used on seasons 1-4 of the TV show The Wire for the final season 5, and Steve himself played a recurring character in the show. Oh yeah, and checking down the personnel list, there he is again: Patrick Earle on drums!

    It's been four years since Steve released another album, putting aside the tribute to his friend and mentor Townes Van Zandt, released in 2009, but this year he's back with a new one. I haven't yet heard a chance to hear I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, but I'm hoping it's a continuation of the excellence shown on his last few records. Once I get to listen to it a few times you can bet it'll be getting reviewed.

    So that's your grounding in, and introduction to Steve Earle. Definitely one of my favourite singers and songwriters; musician, writer, poet, activist, actor and all-round good guy. If you haven't checked Steve Earle out up to now, hopefully the writeup here has convinced you to give him a try. You won't be sorry. So, if you feel alright and are in need of some transcendental blues, mosey on down to Copperhead Road, cos there's a Train a-comin” and it's headed non-stop right into the heart of Guitar Town. The revolution starts now!
    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

  6. #6
    Music Guru Trollheart's Avatar
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    Copperhead Road
    --- Steve Earle --- 1988 (MCA)


    Sometimes you just take a chance. I've occasionally bought books whose cover just drew me in, so much so that I never bothered flipping them over to read the synopsis. Sometimes that's worked, sometimes not. There haven't been too many occasions though where I bought an album without knowing anything at all about the artiste, but that was exactly what happened the day I walked into Tower Records in Dublin and set my eyes on the sleeve of Steve Earle's Copperhead Road album.

    Steve who, you say? Never heard of him! Me neither. Not then anyway. I had absolutely zero idea who he was, what sort of music he played, even if he was a he, and not some sort of euphemism for a band name! But that sleeve! You just couldn't help but be drawn to it. Hell, for all I knew, the guy (if he was a guy!) could have played grunge or disco or even classical, but the message on the album cover did not bespeak that. A snarling, grinning skull-and-crossbones stared out of what looked like a patch on a US Special Forces jacket, with Steve's name emblazoned above in yellow on red, and the album name in a sort of scroll underneath, done in that sort of “Old Western” type. I flipped it over and looked at the back, One MEAN mofo looked out at me: a rough, tough sonofabitch with arms like tree-trunks covered in tattoos, long wild hair, wearing sunglasses and looking like he chewed beer-bottles for breakfast, standing in the midst of what was either an explosion or a dusty Texas road. Hell, you had to know this guy was tough, and his music would be raw, powerful and in-your-face. The expression on those craggy features, the powerful muscled arms folded over, the mirror shades all said “Buy this album or I’ll break your neck!”

    I didn’t need to be threatened. I knew right away thatI had to have this album!

    And so I nervously slipped the disc out of its sleeve and onto the turntable, and the first sounds I heard were what sounded like bagpipes to me, but on checking now I think maybe violin? Anyway, not the thunderous reassurance I had expected or hoped for, Mister Earle! What are you DOING to me?

    But then the first few bars went by, and the violin cut off, to be pounded into submission by stomping drums, and a banjo, bass, and then that growl which I learned to love and respect, the kind of voice you can only get from twenty or thirty years' hard drinkin' and smokin'. The kind of gravelly, raspy but attention-getting rasp that can only be found in the bottom of many bottles of Jack Daniels, chain-smokin' your way to Hell astride a Harley and laughin' in the face of the Devil hisself! The voice of Steve Earle, snarling “My name's John Lee Pettimore/Same as my daddy and his daddy before”.

    Disco this was not!


    Even at that though, the title track (for such it was) lopes along at a relatively sedate pace, sort of like an army marching, but you just sort of know that it's building to something, and when Steve growls “You could smell the whiskey burnin' down Copperhead Road!” the song just takes off, with the drums hammering out and laying down covering fire while Steve charges into battle with his band, and the song powers to its breathless conclusion. As Cartman would say, sweet!

    The song is, as I would find out later, like most of Steve's songs, quite politically-charged. I'm not entirely sure where Steve's political loyalties lie, if anywhere, but I have learned that he vehemently opposes the death penalty, and is very much against war in general, particularly the current “war for profit” of the Bush administration, and one would have to say, the following Obama one too, so far. “Copperhead Road” tells the story of a Vietnam vet who comes back from the war and sets up a drug-still where his grandfather used to make moonshine: “I take the seeds from Columbia and Mexico/ I just plant 'em in the holler down Copperhead Road.” Indeed, the song ends with a warning to the DEA, as Steve snarls “I learned a thing or two from Charlie, don't ya know/ You better stay away from Copperhead Road!” I'd heed his advice!

    No sooner have you got your breath back than he's off again, this time again fooling with a honky-tonk piano line that then quickly morphs into heavy gee-tar and thumping drums, as “Snake Oil” assails the ears, the tale of those conmen of old (and not so old) who would sell the unsuspecting - and the downright stupid! - a cure for anything they needed, as long as they had the cash. “Snake Oil” gets into the political vibe too, with Steve quipping “Ain't your president good to you? / Knocked 'em dead in Libya, Grenada too/ Now he's taking his show a little further down the line/ Between me and him, people/ You're gonna get along just fine!” The honky-tonk piano keeps a great jangling beat right through the song, and it ends with a flourish on the piano, with Steve remarking in approval at the end “I knew there was a first-taker on this album somewhere!”



    The heavy vibe keeps going for “Back to the Wall”, a tough-talking, no-nonsense tale of being on your uppers: “Keep yourself to yourself/ Keep your bedroll dry / Boy you never can tell/ What the shadows hide/ Keep one eye on the ground/ Pick up whatever your find/ Cos you got no place to fall/ When your back's to the wall.” It's angry stuff, and you can tell Steve knows what he's talking about here. He ain't just singing about it, he's lived it. He's had his back to the wall, he knows what it's like.

    I'm not even now certain of Steve's stance on gun law. He has been known to introduce “The Devils' Right Hand” with the following warning: “This ain't a song about gun control. It's already too late in America for that!” It's a great little tune, sort of a country/bluegrass feel to it, about how a kid thinks having a gun is so cool, but his mother tells him “The pistol is the Devils' right hand.” Not heeding this warning, the kid buys one when he is old enough and pays the inevitable consequence. “They asked me how I pleaded/ Not guilty I said/ Not guilty I said, ya got the wrong man/ Nothin' touched the trigger but the Devils' right hand!” Whether this is autobiographical or not I don't know - Steve has had trouble with arms dealing in the past, so maybe, or maybe it's just his attempt to de-glamourise the idea of owning a gun. Either way, it's an impressive effort from a Texan!

    The anger, somewhat diluted for the previous track, returns with a vengeance for the next track, “Johnny Come Lately”, which features, believe it or not, the Pogues, and is almost a jig or reel (never could tell the difference), but with what has now become Steve's signature heavy rhythm. The song recounts the difference between the way the homecoming heroes from World War II were treated as opposed to those returning from the 'Nam. “I'm standin' on a corner in San Diego/ Coupla Purple Hearts so I move a little slow/ Nobody here, maybe nobody knows/ Bout a place called Vietnam.”

    When Copperhead Road was first released we hadn't too many CDs, and I bought it on vinyl, so that brings to a close side one of the album, and reviews of it mostly agreed that it is, like many a football match, a game of two halves. Side one is powerful, gritty, gutsy and daring, whereas, in general, side two contains more formulaic love songs, but still good stuff.There's nothing wrong with a Steve Earle ballad: many appear on his other albums - but there are far better than what's on offer here. For examples, try “Poison Lovers” or the excellent “Christmas in Washington” from 1997's El Corazon, “I Don't Wanna Lose You Yet” or the superlative “Over Yonder” from 2000's Transcendental Blues, or even back to his second release, 1987's Exit 0, for “It's All Up to You”. By comparison, the likes of “Even When I'm Blue”, which kicks off the second side of the album, is ordinary fare. It's good, it's reasonably heavy, but after the power of the previous five tracks it tends to less than satisfy, sort of like watching a great movie to the point where you can't wait to see how it ends, and it ends badly.

    “You Belong to Me” gets a little rockier, carried on a solid rhythm section, but it's a little sparse: even the theme is somewhat hackneyed. “Waiting on You” is better: I just like the tune, I like the keyboard/organ outro, it just sounds better to me. It's also one of the only tracks on the album not written exclusively by Steve: on this one he collaborates with Richard Bennet, longtime contributor to Neil Diamond, wouldya believe, and lead guitarist on the famous hit by the Bellamy Brothers, “Let Your Love Flow”. On the penultimate track, the fairly sub-standard “Once You Love”, Steve teams up with Larry Crane, about whom I admit I know very little, other than he's a sound engineer and once ran his own studio.

    The album comes to a close on a track most reviewers called “cheesy” (well, the polite ones did!) and “Christmassy”, but while it does have a very commercial feel about it, and sounds like it was actually written for the Yuletide Season, I like “Nothing But a Child”. It's very acoustic and understated, and to me, more a song of hope and forgiveness that closes an album that opened with such venom and anger, and I believe says a lot about the artist, and the journey he has undertaken to arrive where he is now. I think the closing lines of the song (and therefore the album) say it best:

    “Nothing but a child/ Can wash those tears away/ And guide a weary world/ Into the light of day/ And nothing but a child/ Can help erase those miles/ So once again we all / Can be children for a while.”

    Or maybe you prefer “You better stay away from Copperhead Road”? Either way, if you know nothing of Steve Earle, you could do a lot worse than check out this offering from a true country/rock soul poet, a Man For Our Times, or, to quote him from a later album, “Just a regular guy.”

    TRACK LISTING

    1. Copperhead Road
    2. Snake Oil
    3. Back to the Wall
    4. The Devil's Right Hand
    5. Johnny Come Lately
    6. Even When I'm Blue
    7. You Belong to Me
    8. Waiting on You
    9. Once You Love
    10. Nothing But a Child
    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

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