Although he’s closely associated with Texas, Steve Earle, who fused traditional country with raw rock & roll on his 1986 debut LP GuitarTown, was born January 17th, 1955 – 63 years ago today – in Fort Monroe, Virginia. Earle’s father was stationed in the Army and worked as an air traffic controller there and his grandfather was so incensed that his grandson wasn’t born in the LoneStarState, he mailed a tin can filled with genuine Texas soil from the family farm to Virginia to ensure that his deep Texas roots could be imprinted on the infant as quickly as possible.
Earle and family returned to Texas before his second birthday, living 20 miles outside San Antonio, and he eventually moved to Nashville, writing songs and spending time with fellow Music Row outsiders, including Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, while penning commercial tunes that would be recorded by such artists as Johnny Lee, Carl Perkins and Connie Smith, among others. A brief tenure as a recording artist with Epic Records made way for his major breakthrough, newly signed by producer and MCA Records label head Tony Brown to a deal that would see the March 1986 release of Guitar Town.
Heralded as a landmark LP in the neo-traditionalist movement, which also saw MCA sign Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith, GuitarTowncranked up the volume and scared some of the more conservative country-radio programmers with its darker, Springsteen-esque approach. At the same time, the album earned universal acclaim, and would go on to capture spots on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and 100 Best Albums of the Eighties.
While the “GuitarTown” single reached Number Seven on the country chart, the album went to Number One and earned Earle and his band, the Dukes, two Grammy nominations. In 1992, Emmylou Harris opened her extraordinary live At the Ryman album with a hard-driving acoustic version of the song, and in 2016 the 30th anniversary of Guitar Town was celebrated with a deluxe reissue of the original LP including a previously unreleased live show at Chicago‘s Park West which Earle acknowledged as a career-making performance.
“It took a long time, but my dreams came true when I played a WXRT dollar show on the stage of the Park West in Chicago,” Earle told Rolling Stone Country in 2016. “The place was full and I played my whole album and everything I’d written for the second album and ran out of songs. I had to come out with a guitar by myself and do a third encore. At that point I knew I had a career.”
The buzz around Steve Earle was also felt early on in the U.K., where he would appear at the end of the year in a BBC documentary on country music. Earle and the Dukes perform a rarely seen version of “GuitarTown” in the above video, captured in an intimate live performance that echoed much of his early stage appearances at smaller clubs in Nashville before the Guitar Town LP catapulted him into stardom.