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Old 09-09-2013, 05:26 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Fearless Heart --- The Steve Earle story

Doing something similar on Marillion in the prog subforum, thought I'd introduce you all to one of my favourite country/rock crossover artistes.

Despite being born in the Red State, Steve Earle is not a flag-waving, patriotic, rightwing, my-country-wrong-or-right-God-bless-America sort of figure. For someone with one foot planted firmly in the Country music genre, his lyrics are often very political and he is sharply critical of much the government does and says. But he's not a rapid Republican, foaming at Obama, nor is he a wishy-washy Democrat, booing Bush. He's an equal opportunities sort of guy. If he thinks something the current administration does is wrong he'll say it, but he has plenty to say about the other side too. He's most vehemently against the death penalty, having written two songs condemning it, the wonderfully uplifting "Over yonder" and the stark "Billy Austin". He's also written books, starred in an episode of "The Wire" (and covered the theme song for one of the seasons) and is involved in many worthy charities.

But before you go thinking he's a saint, check yourself there. Steve has been in trouble. He's been jailed for firearms offences and has battled with substance abuse. Much of this comes through in his writing, and what he doesn't write himself is covers of songs by his heroes, like Townes Van Zandt and Rodney Crowell; he's not someone who has other songwriters pen his tunes. So what you hear of his that isn't a cover comes directly from the big man's heart. Speaking of that heart, it must be pretty damn big (as must his wallet; all those allimony payments!) as he's been married no less than seven times, twice to the same girl. Fearless, indeed!

Steve's career began in the world of rockabilly, and this sound kind of comes through in his debut album, released in 1986, the first of, so far, fourteen studio albums, not including one which is dedicated to his role model Townes Van Zandt and consists only of covers of the man's songs. His debut album was already nominated for two Grammys and went to the top of the Country Billboard charts, but Earle would later cross over into the mainstream contemporary one.

Guitar Town (1986) produced by Emory Gordy Jr and Tony Brown on the MCA label


One of the few albums on which Earle co-wrote with others, this practice would almost completely disappear by the time he released his fourth album, "The hard way", and no doubt as his confidence as an artiste grew.

1. Guitar town (2:33) --- With a very rockabilly/country jamboree sound, this is a song about a man who longs to make it big. He's travelling with his band and trying to hit the big time so he can come back and take his girl away. Nothing terribly original but it does set down a marker from a man who would fairly quickly break into the big leagues in the Country scene, and later manage something of a crossover to the mainstream. As expected the song is driven on uptempo guitar, with Steve sounding at his Countrified best; this would be before he would develop what is now his distinctive growling drawl.

2. Goodbye's all we got left (3:16) --- The second song written solo by Earle, it's another uptempo song but with a fatalistic message that would reverberate down through his catalogue, prompted no doubt in part by the breakup of six successive marriages. When he sings the hook line in the chorus "Talkin' won't do us no good anyway, goodbye is all we've got left to say" it's clear that this relationship --- real or imagined --- has hit the skids. It's not a bitter song but one of accepting the inevitable, and moving on. He says "I don't think it's gonna get any better, maybe you should just write me a letter and I can open it up when I'm stronger --- couple hundred years, maybe longer."

3. Hillbilly highway (3:36) --- The first song on which Earle collaborates, in this case with Jimbeau Hinson, best known for his work with The Oak Ridge Boys, it's the most Country on the album (well with a name like that it would be, wouldn't it?) and like much of Earle's (ahem) earlier material focusses on the need to escape from Nowhereville USA and make it out into the wider world. He reflects on his lineage --- "Poppa left town when I was quite young" --- and intends on following in his father's footsteps, determined not to waste away in the middle of nowhere. It's yet another uptempo track, almost bouncy thanks to some nice slap bass played by Richard Bennett, who in fact co-writes the next track with him.

4. Good ol' boy (Gettin' tough) (3:58) --- Earle's first real stab at a politically-motivated song, and an indication of where his views lay on the state of America, and still do to an extent. When he sings "I was born in the land of plenty, now there ain't enough" he's singing from the heart, and the juxtapositioning of the overtly redneck patriotic title with the subject matter is quite inspired. The title in fact says two separate things, and he qualifies that when he snaps "Nowadays it just don't pay to be a good ol' boy!" It's the first really rock track on the album, setting the scene for later work by the man as he broke a little away from the Country mould, though he never totally left it behind.

5. My old friend the blues (3:07) --- And this is his first shot at a blues song. Well not really: it's very laidback, sit-on-the-porch-with-a-shotgun Country, with much steel pedal guitar and mandolin, the first slow track and another solo effort from him. There's nothing terribly original or unique in the lyric, but it's nice to note as the first ballad we get from Steve.

6. Someday (3:46) --- Another solo effort, and another song about breaking out of his hometown, it's again quite rock but with a healthy slice of Country. Some cool piano from Ken Moore and more pedal steel as Earle sings "I wonder what's over that rainbow? I'm gonna get out of here someday."

7. Think it over (2:13) --- Here he hooks up again with Bennett, but at this point I feel the album starts to slide a little into mediocrity. This is an uptempo, very Country song, ok I suppose but nothign special. It's another my-woman-done-left-me type of thing, and while it's catchy and singable, it's also short and a little forgettable.

8. Fearless heart (4:04) --- A slight upsurge in quality for another solo effort, with powerful guitar and a passionate vocal from Steve. I believe this may have led to, or been written for, the Fearless Heart Foundation, which I think is something to do with sick children, but since I read that years ago I have never been able to find anything about it on the web. Good powerful rock song, gets you right there.

9. Little rock'n'roller (4:49) --- Cheesy, maudlin ballad with a long-distance truck driver phoning his son to talk to him before the kid goes to bed. Lots of pedal steel, a drawly vocal and really gets on my nerves, plus the fadeout end on sprinkly keyboard is just annoying. Steve can't blame anyone else for this, he wrote it himself.

10. Down the road (2:37) --- Starting and ending with an acapella vocal from Steve, this song just showcases how strong his voice is. After the opening vocal it gets going into a nice uptempo country song, driven on bouncy piano and then at the end it finishes on the same opening line, slightly truncated. Steve collaborated with two people on this, Tony Brown and also Hinson again.

Not an album to set the charts alight to be sure, but a good debut and on his second album Earle would begin to develop a style more suited to, and recognised by, the rock fraternity as he tentatively put one foot over the Country fence and liked what he saw there.
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Old 09-10-2013, 01:04 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Earle's second album would be one of only two, that I can see, credited to him and his longtime backing band The Dukes, the other being 1990's "The hard way". It's shown on Wiki as being "similar in sound to his debut" but for me that's not the case. I find "Exit 0" much more a rock record, showing the direction he was already beginning to push in and would crossover to on albums like "Copperhead Road" and the aforementioned "The hard way". Sure it has some Country tracks on it, and as I already mentioned Steve never abandoned his Country roots, but I feel it's a far tighter, harder and rockier album than the debut.

Exit 0 (1987) produced by Tony Brown, Emory Gordy Jr and Richard Bennett on the MCA label


Pushing again the idea of being stuck in a one-horse town, the sleeve cover and indeed the title of the album echo that sense of being trapped, as I'm not totally sure there is such a thing as an exit zero? But I'm not American and I don't drive on freeways --- or at all --- so I couldn't say for sure. But I think it's a kind of allergorical reference to the road to nowhere, the idea of being unable to get out and free yourself from the constraints of the small town you may have grown up in.

1. Nowhere road (2:27) --- And addressing that very problem is the opener, a boppy, upbeat Country song that sings of the sometimes almost futiity of trying to escape --- "Leaves you lonely and cold", Earles sings plaintively, "Standing on the shoulder, but you've come too far to go back home, so you're walkin' down a nowhere road." Although uptempo it's a bleak enough track to open with, and definitely captures the frustration of a man who wants to leave his small hometown behind, knowing there's more out there. It's the first of four collaborations on the album, this one with Reno Kling.

2. Sweet little 66 (2:38) --- A rocky track on a favourite subject for rock, and Country, singers: a car. Basically this just talks about his car (Chevy?) and how great it is. It's fun but ultimately throwaway.

3. No. 29 (3:30) --- Aw Steve! If "Little rock'n' roller" was a cliched ballad on the debut, this is just terrible! The tragic story of a high-school football player who gets injured and can no longer play in the "number 29" position. Very dreary, with a lot of steel geetar, drenched in self-pity and recrimination, and replete with terms that anyone who has no interest in American Football will understand, or want to. The first ballad, and yes I hate it.

4. Angry young man (4:24) --- Ah, now we're getting somewhere! Earle teams up with John Porter McMeans (whoever he may be!) and does his best Springsteen, with harmonica and teenage angst, the rebel without a cause on the run as he grits "Momma you never could understand, ain't no peace for an angry young man!" Slowish but not a ballad, punchy and powerful and a real rock track, kind of reminds me of "Promised land" by the Boss, but in a good way.

5. San Antonio girl (3:30) --- Pure rockin' fun; with a name like that you don't have to guess too hard as to what this song is about. Driven on a sprightly organ line from Ken Moore and honky-tonky piano from John Jarvis, it's just, well, fun, with no special message other than love and havin' fun. Sandwiched as it is between the fist-pumpin' "Angry young man" and the track that follows it's perfectly placed.

6. The rain came down (4:11) --- Steve's first really political song on the album, it's another angry rocker seemingly centred around farmers being pushed off their lands by greedy developers, with a snarling warning "Don't you come around here with your auctioneer's plans cause you can have the machines but you ain't takin' my land!" You can just see Earle, under a court order of eviction, cocking his shotgun and standing belligerently at his gate, daring the bailiffs to try to take his property. More great harmonica and some powerful guitar, all driven along by thunderous drumming. Steve co-wrote this with Michael Woody.

7. I ain't ever satisfied (4:00) --- Something that would be a recurring problem in many of Earle's albums is that at some point, usually about the midway or slightly past it, the songs just get very generic and predictable, and the fine body of work from the first part is often not matched by what follows it, making many of his albums somewhat hit-and-miss. This crops up in "Exit 0" too, with this track being okay, a good rocker, with a lot of fun and some nice vocal harmonies, but distinctly lightweight compared to "The rain came down" or "Angry young man". Filler.

8. The week of living dangerously (4:26) --- With a beat that reminds me of, of all things, "Footloose", this is a fun song that drives along at a good lick, detailing the hazards of a lost weekend in Mexico. Sort of a mix of Country and rock, it's, well, fun. That's all I can say about it. I do like it, and it's not quite filler, but it's not "A" material either.

9. I love you too much (3:37) --- High-octane, heads-down-let's-have-a-good-time barnstormer, but again nothing too fancy. Sort of harks back to the often rockabilly influences on "Guitar Town", and is generally a love song, though without question not a ballad.

10. It's all up to you (5:52) --- Another collaboration, this time with Harry Stinson, Earle manages to pull it out of the fire at the last moment with a heart-wrenching ballad that owes rather a lot to "My old friend the blues" from the previous album. With great pedal steel and a powerful line in percussion, as well as some superb guitar work, it's a perfect closer for the album. Just a pity so much of the music that precedes it is, by comparison, quite substandard.

Again, like the debut, nobody is going to listen to "Exit 0" and have an epiphany. Even his third album, through which I got into the artist, has many flaws. It wouldn't be till much later that Earle would write some pretty perfect albums. But there's certainly enough here to show the beginnings of a real talent, and songs like "San Antonio girl", "The rain came down" and "It's all up to you" give some clue as to where his writing would go, and how it would blossom into a successful career for the young musician from Texas.
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Old 09-24-2013, 07:01 PM   #3 (permalink)
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This was where I first heard of Steve Earle. It was one of those impulse buys: I had no idea at all who the guy was, where this came in his discography --- was it a debut? Had he been around since the sixties? --- and indeed no idea what kind of music to expect. But the title chimed with me, although moreso it has to be said it was a "bright sparkly thing moment" for me. We've all had them: you see something and you like the look of it. You just have to have it. It can be a book, a stereo system, a dress, a hat, a TV or even a chocolate bar. Doesn't matter. You don't know much about this item but it looks good and you want it! So it was with this album.

To at least make sure I wasn't making a mistake, I flipped the album (yeah, I got it on vinyl) over to look at the back cover. What I saw there convinced me, if the front cover had not already, that this was no hip-hop, dance, electronica or even punk album. On the back is a photo of a big tough beefy guy with muscles you could build a house on, long flowing locks and as was said in Blackadder, a beard you could lose a badger in. Tattoos adorned his bare arms and wrapped around his eyes was a cool set of shades. To top it all off, he was standing beside a sweet motorcycle, wiping his hands with an oily rag as dust or steam rose up from the road behind him.

Aw yeah! This was a man's album! And I had to expect that the music on its grooves would RAWK! So, suitably reassured I paid the money and took the album home. I propped the sleeve up in front of my turntable and a thoroughly evil and dangerous-looking skull grinned back at me, as if to tell me that I had better be prepared for what I was about to hear.

Copperhead Road (1988) produced by Steve Earle and Tony Brown on the MCA label

I wasn't. The first sound I heard was a long drawn-out pipe sound, like maybe bagpipes. It goes on for a few long seconds before suddenly thunderous drumming pounds in, like the approach of some fearsome giant, its massive footsteps shaking the earth as it comes closer. Then a banjo started up. Bluegrass? Oh dear. But the percussion was so heavy! Next I heard the gravelly, rasping tones of a man who was going to go on to become one of my favourite artistes, as he sang about the still his grandaddy ran at, you guessed it, Copperhead Road.

So I was still kind of waiting to be convinced. as the song motors along nicely. It tells the story, as I say, of the still where Earle's grandfather made moonshine, its destruction, and his eventual decision to use it as a base for growing weed. About halfway through the song kicks in and I was convinced. This is country rock at its finest and it just gets better. But let's, as they say, get to the breakdown.

1. Copperhead Road (4:30) --- A song that, as I say, starts slowly but builds on a powerful guitar and drumline into a real stomper, telling the story of a moonshine still at Copperhead Road, which apparently is a real road in Tennessee, renamed because with the success of the album too many road signs were being stolen. After it's shut down by the law a Vietnam vet returns home, the grandson of the owner, and begins to grown marijuana there. He's prepared to defend it, as he warns in the closing lines "I learned a thing or two from Charlie, don't ya know? Better stay away from Copperhead Road!" Great starter and a wonderful introduction to the music of this man.

2. Snake oil (3:31) --- We all know what snake oil was, yes? The so-called cure-all that would do everything but cure the common cold, a useless concoction hawked around America by travelling salesmen who were part entertainer, part entrepreneur and part con-man. Here Earle uses snake oil as a metaphor for rash promises --- "I can heal the sick and I can mend the lame, and the blind shall see again: it's all the same" --- while tying it into useless pledges from politicians and remarking how stupid we are to fall for them --- "Ain't your president good to you? Knocked 'em dead in Libya, Grenada too!" It's driven on a powerful, almost exuberant piano line from John Jarvis and an almost rockabilly beat that recalls the best of the debut album. Above all Earle's voice growls out warnings, as he in the role of the salesman grins "You believe that, we're gonna get along just fine!"

3. Back to the wall (5:29) --- The longest track on the album and echoing a darker idea of poverty and hopelessness, this would become a recurring theme throughout Earle's career. It's much more a rock song, with snarly guitar and thick bass as Earle warns "Keep yourself to yourself, keep your bedroll dry. Boy you never can tell what the shadows hide." A lot of John Cougar Mellencamp in this, and with the first two songs basically upbeat this is the first real downer track, heavy with desperation and seething with frustration, the kind of feeling that Earle is only one step away from going into a bank with a shotgun, just to be able to feed his family.

4. The Devil's right hand (3:04) --- Earle introduces this song live with the words "This is not a song about gun control: it's too late for that!" But it is a song about the dangers of romanticising gun ownership. It's run on a sort of slow to mid-paced country beat, with Earle relating the story of a boy who, at fourteen years of age, wishes to have a gun, shocking his mother. When he's old enough to buy one he ends up shooting a miner in a card game, but when arrested claims it wasn't him --- "Not guilty I said, you got the wrong man: nothin' touched the trigger but the Devil's right hand!" Great mandolin work on this from Earle, powerful drumming. NRA probably hate it.

5. Johnny come lately (4:11) --- Very celtic and uptempo, this song features the Pogues and is the story of one of thousands of servicemen returning from 'Nam to "a land fit for heroes", indeed. Earle contrasts the return of his grandfather from World War II with the reception he and his buddies get when returning from America's most unpopular war prior to Iraq. There's plenty of tin whistle, bodhran, banjo and so on, and it's a good kind of drinking song to some extent.

6. Even when I'm blue (4:14) --- Unfortunately, "Copperhead Road" is the epitome of the game of two halves. The first side is pretty flawless; punchy, energetic country rock with more teeth than a Great White. But after that it's almost as if the teeth have been pulled, as the second set of songs that close the album (side two, for anyone as old as me) are a relatively weak collection of maudlin ballads and love songs. It's almost hard to realise that it's the same artiste to be honest. This is not the worst of them, and it has a good thumping beat to it, lots of good guitar, good energy. But something is definitely missing.

7. You belong to me
(4:25) --- This is where it really begins to slip. Now in fairness, the first five tracks are all written by Earle solo, whereas he collaborates on two, but it's not these, so he has to take full responsibility --- all right, blame --- for these. This is very short on ideas, as can be witnessed by a listen to the chorus: "You belong to me, you belong to me. Me me me." Uh, yeah. Well, maybe it gets better?

8. Waiting on you (5:10) --- Yeah, it does. "Waiting on you" is the first of the two songs he co-writes, and it's with Richard Bennett, with whom he collaborated on the previous albums. It's driven on a big organ melody and it has a great hook in it. There's a lot of emotion and power in the song, and although it's essentially, like the two above it, a love song, it's got at least a few of its teeth left. Still, considering the "back from the war" theme of the first side, it's odd that the album seems to be tailing off into a bunch of love songs. This has a great organ outro.

9. Once you love (4:39) --- One of the worst --- no, the worst --- song on the album. I mean, I thought "You belong to me" was half-cocked, but listen to this: "Once you love, once you've trusted, one false move and you know you're busted." Oh dear. There's not a lot to say really. It's the other one he co-writes, this time with Larry Crane. It even starts very similar to one of my least favourite Earle tracks, "Little rock'n'roller"...

10. Nothing but a child (4:26) --- People have slagged this off and tittered that Earle was trying to write a Christmas song, and maybe he was. But I like this. It's got real heart, real emotion and in true country style it pays tribute to Jesus, likening His birth to that of every other baby born every other second across the world. It's the first, and only, slow song on the album, and to be fair is sung almost as a dirge, but is rescued by Earle's outlook on humanity and his assertion that "Every mother kind, and every father proud, looks down in awe to find another chance allowed." Yes it's sentimental and a little derivative, but I like it. It's not the greatest of closers but it's not the worst. Also it has Maria McKee on it, which can never be bad.

Basically, as The Batlord found out when I recommended the album to him, it goes great from track one to five, but then you're almost better stopping, because what follows is generally pretty much a disappointment. Nevertheless, as I say this was my first foray into the world of Steve Earle's music, and I never regretted it. I was prepared to forgive him the "hokey love songs" of side two as long as I had the power country rock of side one to listen to, and those five --- well, add the sixth and eighth track too, they're good if not great --- tracks certainly justified the price of the album.

And better was to come, as two years later Steve Earle would release one of his most complete and almost perfect albums, and start a cycle of excellence that would continue well into the twenty-first century. It would be a good time to be a Steve Earle fan.
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