The Second Coming
In the liner notes to his 1995, all-acoustic comeback album, Train a Comin', Steve Earle sardonically refers to "my vacation in the ghetto." A heroin addict since debuting at age 31 with 1986's near-perfect, new-wave Nashville classic Guitar Town, Earle spent four years living in a self-imposed exile in the poor, black neighborhoods of south Nashville. This culminated in his 1994 arrest on crack-possession charges that put him behind bars. His stint in the slammer was a mere 45 days--a full 44 longer than Johnny Cash's, and about 45 longer than most of his hard-livin' contemporaries. But the length of his stay wasn't really an issue, as convict status only served to deepen an already pervasive mythology.
An uneasy rider from South Texas, Earle came of age, perhaps paradoxically, as both a radical lefty and a honky-tonk fanatic. Today he may be the only man who has opened for both George Jones and the Replacements, and his reputation as a badass iconoclast has circulated so widely that some Nashville bizzers are physically afraid of him. It's an image that many fans are attracted to, yet Earle has done his best to shed it in his post-jail second life.
The encouraging Train a Comin' was sort of a warm-up, a way of easing back into the music after his lost years. Earle's next record, 1996's I Feel Alright, marked his return more decisively. Though it didn't match the sales of 1988's overheated Copperhead Road or the critical acclaim of Guitar Town, I Feel Alright was a career-best, lifesaving record, a tour de force that saw Earle meet his mythology head-on. "Now some of you would live through me and lock me up and throw away the key," he sang on the title track, adding, "I got everything you want or need, your darkest fear." But while Earle may have wished to remain a "conjurer of darker times," the most striking thing about the song's seemingly ironic chorus--"I feel alright, I feel alright tonight"--was its complete lack of irony.
Earle documented his past on that record in tunes like "Hardcore Troubadour" and "The Unrepentant," but he also embraced his future in the most optimistic-feeling music he'd ever made. And in the last few years, he has lived out the promise of I Feel Alright by submerging himself in his career just as he once lost himself in drugs. On I Feel Alright, and, to a lesser extent, its 1997 follow-up, El Corazón, Earle unveiled a startling sense of musical dexterity and songwriting chops, reaching for an inspired sense of craftsmanship much like his generational comrade Lucinda Williams. The result was a deeper and more durable set of musical pleasures than anything coming out of the alt-country club that had blossomed during his absence. He balanced exquisite love songs with Springsteenlike arena rockers that outdid anything the Boss had written in more than a decade. At his best, Earle was laying out a personal, characteristically original vision of American roots music, borrowing a melody from Dylan for a duet with the aforementioned Williams, invoking Woody Guthrie, paying tribute to Townes Van Zandt, even kicking out jams with Seattle's skunkabilly hellions the Supersuckers.
But Earle's version of musical Americana also revealed an affinity for and comfort with an essential element that's all but missing from the work of his peers--be they from the alt club or the Nashville network--that is, black music. He expertly deployed gospel harmonies from the Fairfield Four on both records, and El Corazón even came with a shout-out to Malcolm X.
Appropriating idiom, I Feel Alright's "South Nashville Blues" was a flawless acoustic blues, with Earle singing offhandedly, "I took my pistol and a hundred-dollar bill/I had everything I needed to get me killed," while the straight-up soul of "Hurtin' Me, Hurtin' You" could have sprung from the pen of Otis Blackwell ("Don't Be Cruel") or Doc Pomus ("This Magic Moment").
As a label-owner, songwriter, and producer for hire, Earle has engaged in a total immersion in musical craft (which is certainly not without therapeutic value). Making up for lost time may be a cliché, but that's exactly what Steve Earle has done. And his most recent project is yet another attempt to push what is becoming a prolific body of work into new areas.
His latest, The Mountain (E-Squared), eschews the stylistic variety that has marked the rest of his recent output. Recorded with the Del McCoury Band, who get, and deserve, equal billing, it's a love letter to bluegrass. Of course, with Earle's core audience roughly ten times the size of the Del McCoury Band's--and they're stars on the bluegrass circuit--this CD is also designed to expose the music to a larger audience.
Longtime fans may miss the raw quality of Earle's roots-rock albums, but they'll be missing the fact that while he may sound like a rock 'n' roller, he's a folkie at heart--a guy who worshiped at the feet of Townes Van Zandt and was introduced to Nashville by Guy Clark. The Mountain is a songwriting exercise for him--an attempt, as he recently admitted, to write songs that will become genre standards. You can feel him aiming for something as archetypal and eternal as, say, "The Long Black Veil" or "Streets of Baltimore." And though he comes up short--there's a fine line between archetypal and clichéd, and he crosses it on occasion--this is still a worthy effort.
Covering all of traditional music's bases, The Mountain has trains ("Texas Eagle"), the Depression ("Leroy's Dustbowl Blues"), a violent Appalachian tale ("Carrie Brown"), coal miners ("Harlan"), and the Civil War ("Dixieland"). But when Earle breaks free from this almost academic array and the music loosens up, his own ornery personality sneaks in. There's the conversational "Texas Eagle," in which the narrator complains, "Nowadays they don't make no trains/Just the piggyback freighters and them Amtrak things," and the bluesy "Graveyard Shift," in which Earle turns what the listener expects to be the story of a downtrodden laborer into a ballad of a backdoor man.
The Mountain isn't an "official" Steve Earle album. It's a self-released side trip (the result of what Earle describes as a year of "bluegrass boot camp") that will serve as a detour en route to his next record for a major label. Yet while his ability to learn his way around the form is impressive, it's not what he does best. Forty-five minutes of bluegrass exposes Earle's limited vocal range, especially when Del and Ronnie McCoury pitch in--and upstage him--with their harmonies. Earle is a scrappy singer, but high and lonesome just isn't in his repertoire.
Likewise, his songwriting is generally stronger and more comfortable when grounded in the personal realism of I Feel Alright and El Corazón. The fact that that realism now allows for musical experiments and reflective songwriting alike makes this mild disappointment of an album feel more like a celebratory occasion.
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