100 Best Albums of the Eighties
Steve Earle, 'Guitar Town'
"I had given up on ever getting a record deal and became a staff songwriter, going into the office eight hours a day and trying to write for the radio," says the Nashville-based country rocker Steve Earle. "What happened was that during that period, I learned a lot about craft." When Earle finally did get to make a full-length album in 1986, after having written songs for artists ranging from Waylon Jennings to Carl Perkins, he could apply professional songwriting polish to his Dylanesque verse and outlaw style of music. The result was Guitar Town, an album that straddled country and rock to create something startlingly new. In the words of a fellow artist, John Hiatt, it was "pretty much a darn near flawless record. Great writing, fantastic album."
Guitar Town tells simple stories of people living in hard times, such as the cautionary "Good Ol' Boy (Gettin' Tough)." It also relates the autobiographical tale of a country singer rolling down the road, from "Guitar Town" to "Hillbilly Highway," trying to outrun the blues. "It's important to me to make sure the average person can understand what I'm trying to say," says Earle. "Songwriting at its best is very rarely poetry; it's usually narrative and practically journalism. It is a form of literature, but one you can consume while you're driving your car."
Guitar Town boasts everything from a rich, orchestral twelve-string to some deep, twangy solos on the Danelectro six-string bass. It was recorded at an all-digital studio in Nashville. By embracing the latest technology, Earle hoped his hometown would receive its due as an up-to-date music metropolis. "I want to see Nashville become a place to make records, and not just country records," says Earle.
Does Earle see himself as more of a country or a rock artist? "I've been more readily accepted on rock radio, but as my audience gets older with me, I'll probably end up back on country radio," he says. "I think that as a singer, I borrow more from Hank Williams than from David Bowie."