1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
If you're a fan of modern mainstream country music, stop reading this post now, because it will result in you being offended. The problem with the aforementioned variety of country music is that it aims for, and acts upon, stereotypes. To put it in as politically incorrect as possible, it's like the blackface troubadours of the late nineteenth century, except the audience isn't in on the joke anymore. During the '80s, country largely stopped being musicians playing in a country/western style and became guys in cowboy hats (often from nowhere near pastoral America) singing about "honky-tonk badonkadonks" and similar nonsense.
My point is ultimately this: Steve Earle, today's post subject, gets a little too much credit for being a forbearer of "alt-country," the title given to all country musicians who don't contemplate sexy tractors. Earle released his debut "Guitar Town" in 1986, three years before Garth Brooks released his self-titled debut. In a word, country musicians (the obvious example: Johnny Cash) had been singing about social injustice and drug abuse for a while before Earle took the stage.
"Guitar Town" does display the seeds of what would become Earle's political-narrative songwriting style. "Good 'Ol Boy (Getting' Tough)" details the difficulties faced by a vet returning from Vietnam, singing he was "born in the land of plenty/now there ain't enough." The approach mirrors the method of Bruce Springsteen, who had distributed social commentary via song in a popular manner for more than ten years by that point, and the similarity is less than coincidental (The 2002 reissue of "Guitar Town" features a live cover of Springsteen's "State Trooper"). Earle however keeps his spirits high and hopeful on tracks like "Someday," a rousing ode about getting out of a one-horse town, while Springsteen tended towards cynicism on similar tracks like 1984's "Born In The USA."
Earle isn't one to completely ignore his blue-collar Texas upbringing however, as titles like "Hillbilly Highway" go to show. Thankfully, the guitarist uses classic Western instrumental parts to make it bearable. Check out the walking upright bass on "Hillbilly" or the cowboy-emoting pedal steel guitar on the lamenting "My Old Friend The Blues."
There's no doubt that Earle has had a hand in inspiring modern "alt-country" artists like Lucinda Williams and the Drive-By Truckers, I just mean to say that his role in creating the genre may be overstated. Ultimately, if you truly enjoy country music, there's no reason why you shouldn't enjoy this. But, on the other hand, if you truly hate country music, that's no guarantee that you'll feel the same about "Guitar Town." Personally, however, I'd look more forward to Earle's more recent work in "Transcendental Blues," which Tom Moon will look at later.
INTERESTING FACT: Earle worked as a songwriter for a while before releasing his own album. In 1975, he wrote the song "Mustang Wine" for Elvis Presley, and this fact would've been a lot more interesting if Presley had shown up the day it was to be recorded.