Guitar Town (MCA, 1986)
Exit 0 (MCA, 1987)
Copperhead Road (Uni/MCA, 1988)
The Hard Way (MCA, 1991)
Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator (MCA, 1991)
Essential Steve Earle (MCA, 1993)
Train a Comin' (Winter Harvest, 1995)
I Feel Alright (E-Squared/Warner Bros., 1996)
Ain't Ever Satisfied: The Steve Earle Collection (Hip-O/MCA, 1996)
El Corazón (E-Squared/Warner Bros., 1997)
Transcendental Blues (E-Squared/Artemis, 2000)
Sidetracks (E-Squared/Artemis, 2002)
Jerusalem (E-Squared/Artemis, 2002)
Just an American Boy (Artemis, 2003)
The Revolution Starts…Now (Artemis, 2004)
Live from Austin TX (New West, 2004)
The Definitive Collection 1983-1997 (Hip-O, 2006)
Live at Montreaux 2005 (Eagle, 2006)
Washington Square Serenade (New West, 2007)
Live from Austin TX November 12, 2000 (MCA, 2008)
Live at the BBC (MCA, 2009)
Townes (New West, 2009)
with Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark Together at the Bluebird Café (American Originals, 2001)
with the Del McCoury Band The Mountain (E-Squared, 1999)
In the sin-and-redemption sweepstakes, few life stories in rock compare to Steve Earle's, and his music is even more interesting than his biography. Beginning with 1995's acoustic "comeback" album, Train a Comin', the singer-songwriter has been predictable only in the high quality of his work; otherwise, each album has found him challenging himself and his listeners, either with an unexpected concept (teaming with the redoubtable Del McCoury Band on The Mountain, a one-album experiment in bluegrass that caught the roots boom on its upward arc) or a bold dive into genre-bending (Transcendental Blues, with its pronounced echoes of pre–Sgt. Pepper's Beatles production flourishes in the midst of largely traditional country formulations). His early albums are dotted with stories of working-class folks struggling to make a place for themselves in a society of haves and have-nots. Since then he's only sharpened his polemics: His longtime opposition to the death penalty has moved him to write a devastating chronicle of a killer's final hours ("Billy Austin," on The Hard Way).
Earle's debut album, Guitar Town, was his breakthrough. The album-opening title track is rich with a furiously strummed acoustic guitar, electric guitars twanging Duane Eddy–style, a steady humming B3 organ, and a propulsive rhythm section fueling Earle's swaggering recollection of the music's siren song in his life. The beautiful rockabilly breakup song "Think It Over" offsets a rather bitter lyric with a gorgeous melody in a song that could have come out of Buddy Holly's catalog. "My Old Friend the Blues" starts as a gentle, acoustic-driven paean to the comforting powers of the blues and gradually opens up into a languorous honky-tonk ballad. "Good Ol' Boy (Gettin' Tough)" is a template for numerous Earle narratives to come: bristling Southern rock with an acoustic guitar way up in the mix, and a story about an embattled outsider frustrated in his efforts to get his fair share of the American Dream.
Exit 0 picked up right where Guitar Town left off, with "Nowhere Road," a story of a desolate Oklahoma road that serves as a metaphor for policies designed to keep the disenfranchised in their place while seeming to hold out the prospect of opportunity ahead. But it's only a prelude to the masterwork of Earle's MCA years, Copperhead Road. Released in 1988, it was the most powerful example of the rock-influenced spectrum of the New Traditionalist movement, which was then cresting commercially in the wake of the mainstream breakthroughs of Dwight Yoakam, the Judds, Randy Travis, and Rodney Crowell, among others. The title song leading off the album details an anti-authoritarian legacy handed down to succeeding generations by his bootlegger granddad, for whom violence is one revenue agent's visit away from erupting. For the remainder of the album's first half, the narrator—a Vietnam vet damaged physically and spiritually by his experience in Southeast Asia—lives a hard-luck life that leads him into chicanery ("Snake Oil"), gun play (the searing "Devil's Right Hand"), isolation, and paranoia ("Back to the Wall"). Finally, disillusionment with the future sets in on the epic "Johnny Come Lately." In a bit more than four minutes, Earle offers a powerful summation of the personal price a generation paid for serving its country during an unpopular, undeclared war.
Small wonder that Earle couldn't top Copperhead Road with its follow-up, The Hard Way. It's not as consistently inspired as its predecessor, but in a few spots its every bit as potent. The surging, dense atmospherics of "The Other Kind" are an ideal complement to the lyrics' story of an unreformed outsider whose life is on the road, and Earle's snarling delivery makes it apparent how much he identifies with his self-penned sentiments. The centerpiece of the album is the above-mentioned "Billy Austin," a somber, riveting acoustic ballad about a Native American, 29 years old, on Death Row for killing a gas station attendant in a botched robbery attempt.
Following a two-year sabbatical during which he underwent treatment for his drug addiction, Earle, thin and gaunt, began popping up in Nashville clubs, playing solo acoustic shows. He eventually released Train a Comin' on the Winter Harvest label in 1995. In an all-acoustic affair, Earle is accompanied by two unassailable masters of stringed instruments, Norman Blake and Peter Rowan, plus the formidable acoustic bass player Roy Hus key (now deceased), and on harmony vocals, Emmylou Harris. Earle's next album, I Feel Alright, is both a spit-in-the-eye retort to those who wrote him off and a return to his crisp, country-rock style, with harmonicas, twangy guitars, and a powerhouse rhythm section. El Corazón features a full-blown, bluegrass number, "I Still Carry You Around," teaming Earle with one of bluegrass music's finest groups, the Del McCoury Band. Thus was the stage set his 1999 collaboration with that band, The Mountain, a masterful bluegrass album that features stirring tracks such as "Harlan Man."
Bluegrass is a distant memory on Transcendental Blues, which opens with a synthesizer blip, harmonium drones and the faint patter of tabla on the title track, and features other Beatles-inspired touches such as backward orchestral riffing on "The Boy Who Never Cried" and serpentine guitar licks and a stop-time effect right out of Revolver's "Tomorrow Never Knows." A between-albums stopgap, Sidetracks is billed as "a collection of unreleased or underexposed songs."
Owing to the controversy sparked by "John Walker's Blues"—a song written from the perspective of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh—the whole of Jerusalem was never fairly addressed. It arrived not with a statement supportive of terrorists—as some conservative critics claimed—but rather with a sensible explanation of Lindh's unsettling odyssey and a pervasive sense of history in four other powerful songs addressing the events of September 11 and their aftermath. With the same core band he used on Jerusalem—guitarist Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, former dB's drummer Will Rigby, and bassist Kelly Looney—Earle upped the ante considerably on The Revolution Starts... Now, a classic, Phil Ochs–style protest album that doesn't let up once in its 11 tracks. Recorded after the re-election of George W. Bush, it brims with anger, opening with the dark but anthemic title track, continuing with the hard-hitting ballad "Rich Man's War," the spoken-word poetry of "Warrior," the Mahlathini-inspired spoof "Condi, Condi" (about then-National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice) and ending with a reprise of "The Revolution."
After Revolution, Earle signed to New West Records, married country-folk singer Allison Moorer and, tiring of the political conservatism of the South, moved to New York City. He documents all of that on Washington Square Serenade, from his anger at his old home ("Tennessee Blues," in which he sings "Won't be back no more, boys, won't see me around. Goodbye Guitar Town") to his awe over the diversity of his new one ("City of Immigrants"). For the music on Washington Square, he enlisted producer John King of the Dust Brothers (Beastie Boys, Beck) to provide a bedrock of subtle beats and other non-distracting contemporary sonic textures. Townes is a loving, but not totally successful tribute to one of Earle's early mentors, the late Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt. Earle re-imagines the songs using sometimes inventive production ("Lungs"), but his gruff vocal delivery tends to rob songs like "Loretta" and "Rake" of their plaintive delicacy.
Earle has released numerous live albums and anthologies. The Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator performance marked the end of his MCA tenure, but Live at the BBC is a better document from the same period. The two Live from Austin sets come from Earle's appearances on "Austin City Limits" in 1986 and 2000, respectively. Just an American Boy was captured smack in the middle of the controversy over "John Walker's Blues," and while it finds Earle talking about politics as much as playing, it somehow works without becoming too preachy. Live at Montreux 2005 is a solid, all-acoustic affair. In 1993, MCA released its official Steve Earle overview, The Essential Steve Earle, a 13-track collection that includes "Guitar Town," "The Devil's Right Hand," "Good Ol' Boy (Gettin' Tough)," "Copperhead Road," and "Nowhere Road," as well as two non-album cuts, the trucking classic "Six Days on the Road" and "Continental Trailways Blues" (both from the movie Planes, Trains & Automobiles). Hip-O's double-CD, 28-track Ain't Ever Satisfied: The Steve Earle Collection, includes six songs from Copperhead Road and "The Other Kind" from The Hard Way. A more comprehensive document of his early years and comeback is The Definitive Collection 1983-1997, which begins before his signing to MCA and takes him through El Corazón.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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