I was mostly working in record shops when the ‘New Country’ thing (or was it ‘nu-country’?) was almost big in the mid-to-late ’80s, so I got to hear a lot more of those albums than I otherwise might have as a music-starved teenager in central Scotland. Dwight Yoakam, Lone Justice/Maria McKee, Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang and, of course, Steve Earle were heavily marketed as alternatives to the sanitised, glossy mainstream country of the day. There were ‘New Country’-branded stickers on the album covers, as if saying “Look! it’s not all John Denver and Kenny Rogers!” – serving as a reminder that in the ’80s a lot of the apparent counter-culture figures were still on major labels, chasing airplay and MTV exposure right alongside Def Leppard and Madonna (which goes some way to explaining the horrendous over-production that plagued some of the recordings).
Anyway, I’ve picked up a few of those titles on tape recently. Here are some thoughts on the Steve Earle ones.
Guitar Town (1986)
Earle’s first full-length album. He was presumably being pushed as a Springsteen-type at the time, going by the small-town-working-class-gotta-get-outta-here chest-beating nature of the likes of Good Ol’ Boy and Someday (in which Steve’s Chevy is a ’67, as opposed to Bruce’s ’69 from Racing In The Streets). There are some undoubted gems here though – the title track and Hillbilly Highway are standouts with a pleasing rockabilly touch throughout and some Luther Perkins-influenced guitar here and there. Then there’s My Old Friend The Blues, as good as a song can be and more than making up for the mawkish Little Rock ‘n’Roller.
Copperhead Road (1988)
On its release this seemed to be a marked change of direction for Earle after Guitar Town and its follow up Exit O. In retrospect, not so much. Side one is a terrific collection of roots rock which I guess at the time just seemed to hit harder. Now, it seems that most of this material could have been at home on either of the preceding albums. There’s everything on here from barrelhouse piano to The Pogues, with legitimate classics including Johnny Come Lately, Devils Right Hand and of course Copperhead Road itself. The tale of the son of a Vietnam vet carrying on a family tradition is the ‘rockiest’ item here, Celtic-flavoured country rock with a hint of Led Zeppelin.
Side two is a bit of a let down, though listenable enough. MTV fodder throughout, assorted balladry and uptempo love songs, suffering horribly from Big ’80s Production (cheesy keyboards, oddly out-of-place programming and absurdly big “g’deesh!” drums – production here is by Steve Earle and Tony Brown) with Waiting On You transparently vying for the ‘New Springsteen’ title. Not even the considerable talents of Maria McKee and Jerry Donahue can entirely save Nothing But A Child. Maybe I have a particularly low sentimentality threshold but going out on a xmas song? Odd choice. Still a hell of an album, at least throughout its first side.
The Hard Way (1990)
Back in The Day, this was by far my favourite Steve Earle album. Much to my surprise on doing a little Googlpedia reading I find it’s not highly regarded. Oh well.
Apparently recording it was a bastard, as Earle’s addiction demons were getting the better of him. Certainly it’s overlong (at not far shy of an hour) and overproduced (it may be from 1990 but Big ’80s Production gaffes abound. Unwelcome, ill-fitting keyboards and absurdly gunshot-like percussion, all courtesy once again of the production skills of Earle himself, this time with Joe Hardy) and there is still some Springsteen chasing. However, there are moments here that couldn’t be bettered as well as some fine songs in desperate need of a sympathetic arrangement. Billy Austin, for instance is a powerful piece of songwriting hampered by a progressively intrusive keyboard-heavy arrangement and Have Mercy is robbed of what might have been an engaging fragility by the excesses of the production. A close cousin to Copperhead Road, Justice In Ontario is an album highlight but those Big ’80s Drums – ooft! “Can we have more reverb?” “No, Steve, there is no more reverb. In the world. We’ve used it all.”
I don’t know why I’m dwelling on the negatives here when the positives far outweigh them. Check out the two, excellent, writing collaborations with Maria McKee – the straight-ahead country of Promise You Anything and the epic roots rock of Esmerelda’s Hollywood. Great stuff. When The People Find Out, Country Girl and Regular Guy are country rock done to perfection while This Highway’s Mine (Roadmaster) and West Nashville Boogie simply rock properly. Close Your Eyes is a tender track dressed up in more bombast but it works and serves as an effective album closer.
All in, the production and arrangement issues are problems endemic to their time but the quality of the material is more than good enough to compensate. It might even still be my favourite Steve Earle album, as impressive as his output has been since then.
The tapes themselves I got for a couple of quid or so each online. Copperhead Road has seen better days, The Hard Way is near mint and Guitar Town slowly died while I was listening to it (bloody thing). Easy enough to source in the format of your choice, each is well worth checking out.