Sunday, November 6, 2016


Steve Earle was no raw rookie when his debut album, Guitar Town, came out in 1986. He'd been fighting an uphill battle in Nashville since 1974, when he showed up in town at the feat of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, the newest version of the classic country outsider (see Johnny Cash, Waylon and Willie, etc.) Publishing and recording deals came and went, and lots of one-nighters and (famously) failed marriages too. Finally Nashville got smart to a new breed of singer-songwriters, which also included Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash, and for awhile there it looked like country music could be good again. Earle broke into the top ten with the title cut of this album.

It's considered heresy to mess with the original sound of an album too much, but if there was ever a set that deserved to be radically remixed, or (Gasp!) even re-recorded, it's this one. Not that the performance was bad; it was the blasted recording technique of the 80s. This was the first country album to be recorded on a full digital system, and it sounds it, that crisp and antiseptic 80s production. Most annoying are the drums, with a booming reverb on each strike. It might have been all the rage then, but it sure hasn't dated well.

A shame that, as this is such a solid album. Earle had spent those years paying dues well, at least in the songwriting department. Hillbilly Highway tells a story of generations of small town folks having to leave the farm, and head away for work, college, or in his case, guitar playing. Someday is another one on the same theme, written from the perspective of a kid working at a filling station on the highway, who can't wait to get away from his dead-end town and job, head down the road to whatever is waiting. Fearless Heart is about that search for great love, no matter what: "A fearless heart just comes back for more."

This deluxe edition doesn't have any demos or outtakes, but instead a period concert on the second disc. Often these are okay sets, recorded for radio or promotion reasons, but nothing special. This time, everything came together on one night in Chicago, August 15, 1986. At one point, Earle tells the crowd that he's been in a whirlwind of playing every night, but that very day he's realized that with his newfound success, all of his dreams have come true. At the end of the show, after three encores, he tells them "This has been the thrill of my life, and that's no shit." It's a thrill to hear it 30 years later too.

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