On a high-temp Sunday in Manhattan, after a train ride on an excruciating slow-moving local that stopped at every single station, I took a 36-block stroll downtown with music in my head. It’s not unusual to occasionally find Steve Earle walking the western grid between Houston Street and 14th Street, so I began to look for him as I cut across Washington Square looking for shade.
Forty-five minutes earlier, somewhere between Fordham and Harlem, I had made the decision to hand him a 20 dollar bill. Had I checked to see where he and Shawn Colvin were appearing, on what The Guardian has tagged the “nine divorces, two addictions, one perfect mix” tour, I’d have known they were down in Virginia.
What prompted me to seek Earle out was that I’d listened to the complete digitized bootleg Magnetised Motherf**kers along with the second shorter edition More MMs. Together there’s over 75 live tracks, B-sides, promo-only songs, collaborations, duets, tribute albums, and compilation appearances which are not so easy to find in this post-pirate world of online streaming. Both are essentials in my Earle collection, and I felt the need to make amends.
Loosely calculating that if these albums were ever released Steve might actually see 20 bucks after performance and publishing fees, it seemed like a good gesture on my part. And since we didn’t connect, I’ve taken a bill, folded it into thirds, and tucked it into my wallet behind my driver’s license. Next time I see him on the street, it’s his.
Anyway, to my point. Guitar Town, the first full-length album from Earle and his band the Dukes, was released on March 5, 1986. It topped the Billboard country album charts and the title song reached number seven on the country singles charts. There were two Grammy nominations. The album is turning 30 years old this year, so it seems too important an anniversary to skim over.
Ten years after the release of Guitar Town, a new magazine called No Depression put Earle on the cover of their third issue, and Peter Blackstock wrote an excellent profile that was part interview, part history. Earle had already crashed, burned, and risen again. Blackstock wrote:
Guitar Town, which presented the most definitive synthesis of country and rock ‘n’ roll during the 1980s, is generally considered Earle’s debut, but in fact he had released a rockabilly EP titled Pink & Black in the early ’80s. Furthermore, he had been a fixture on the Nashville scene for more than a decade before Guitar Town came out, ever since he had moved there from his boyhood home of San Antonio to play bass for Guy Clark.
In the late seventies Earle left Clark’s band and began to get work as a songwriter. He told Blackstock:
People [publishers] would keep signing me because they knew I could write, but nobody got a lot of cuts on me, so they’d usually drop me eventually, and then somebody else would sign me. I had the odd cut here and there.The first record I ever had that made any money was a Johnny Lee single in about 1980 that I co-wrote.
You can find Lee’s “When You Fall In Love” here on You Tube, and it was co-written with John Sherrill and produced by Jim Ed Norman. Released in 1982, it made it to just the middle of the charts and peaked at number 14.
Of more interest to me is a song that came out almost exactly one year before Guitar Town was released. Connie Smith was planning to come out of semi-retirement, and “A Far Cry from You” was written solely by Earle. Released as a single and never on an official album, it was dead on arrival. Reaching number 71 on the Hot Country Singles chart, it was anything but. Yet to my ears, it’s the first song of his that I hear written in the “Earle-style.” This past year, it was re-recorded beautifully and released by Marsha Thornton, a label-mate of Earle back in the early ’90s, at MCA.
To mark the anniversary of Guitar Town, Universal announced that they would do what they usually do these days: remaster and reissue it on black 180-gram heavyweight vinyl, and sell it for 17 bucks. That’s some brilliant marketing. Checking on Amazon, it’s ranked today at #39,430. In a press release from back in March, there’s also a two-disc set and a digital download (who does that anymore?) deluxe edition coming before Christmas. Huh.
Does anything else really need to be added to the 34 minute and 35 seconds ten-track original? I think not.
In an article titled Albums of Our Lives written by Lucy Shiller in 2013 and posted on The Rumpus, Shiller nails the essence of what makes Guitar Town so special. In her youth, this disc became the soundtrack for family road trips. She wrote:
Here was a harder-edged voice than I was used to, yelping and sneering about having a “two-pack habit and a motel tan.” I barely knew what a two-pack habit might be, and I had no idea about a motel tan. But I wanted both. My father and I screamed the lyrics as we entered the dreaded hour five of a day’s drive—just about the time when you feel you should almost be there but know you’re only halfway, and with each passing hour, you become, in the parlance of my family, increasingly “rumpsprung.”
Steve’s guitar was rambunctiously cheery, bolstered by swift pickings on the mandolin. The instrumentation belied gloriously bitter lyrics. Singing them, singing them loudly, was being full, suddenly, of a rightful rage about a discovered outsider status. “Hillbilly Highway,” the album’s third track, was an epic: a young man leaving his country home for a job, years later, his son leaving for college, and then, finally, the grandson — Steve Earle — picking up his guitar and hitting the road. He’d had enough.’
While Earle’s ten songs alone would be cause for tribute, it’s the entire package of collaboration between songwriter, band, and producers that makes it work as well as it does. The Dukes, or more accurately this version of the band, breaks down like this:
Bucky Baxter-Pedal Steel Guitar
Richard Bennett-Guitar, the infamous Danelectro 6-string bass, slap bass and associate producer
Ken Moore-Organ and synth
Emory Gordon, Jr. -Bass, mandolin and producer
Harry Stinson-Drums and vocals
Paul Franklin-Pedal Steel Guitar (‘Fearless Heart’ and ‘Someday’)
John Barlow Jarvis- Synth and piano
Steve Earle-Guitar and vocals
The album was recorded in late 1985 and early 1986 in Nashville at Sound Stage Studio. Overdubs were later recorded at Emerald Studios. It was one of the first country music albums to be recorded digitally, utilizing the state-of-the-art Mitsubishi X-800. Each of the album’s ten tracks was either written or co-written by Earle.
Thirteen years after it’s release, Guitar Town was certified gold by the RIAA in 1999. Reno Kling on bass and Mike McAdams on guitar joined Baxter, Moore, and Stinson as the touring Dukes.