We’ve Come a Thousand Miles from a Guitar Town – 30 years of Steve Earle’s seminal album
It’s been 30 years ago since March that Guitar Town came out. I was only six so it would be unreasonable of me to be cross about not having got it hot off the press or whatever you say with records (one of these days I will learn the terminology and stop sounding like an idiot); it’s a shame because if only I’d been the right age (say, 14), Steve Earle would have been the ideal rock star for me to fixate on. Much better than Kurt Cobain (if only because he wouldn’t, against the odds, break my heart by dying early; the word ‘Survivor’ ought to be tattooed across this man, although that would lead to situations that were awkward and uncomfortable like the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where the party guests are expecting a survivor of the concentration camps and instead get a contestant from the reality show Survivor; but I digress). Or, you know, Dave Pirner (I was young, and in my defence Winona Ryder was confused too).
What my almost equally unreasonable jealousy focuses on is the tenth anniversary show, in 1996, when I was sixteen and if only I’d been around in Nashville, or, you know, America, I might have made it. They held it at the Ryman. I read about it in Lauren St John’s highly enjoyable biography, Hardcore Troubadour, and as if to tickle my fancy just a little bit more, it ends with the Earle family planning to visit a Waffle House. Which is enough to make me jealous in itself.
Being at the Ryman, that 10th anniversary show is tangled up in my mind with Emmylou Harris’ performance of the song ‘Guitar Town’ with the Nash Ramblers at the Ryman Auditorium; Harris and her always considerable influence at the hip end of country are widely credited with bringing attention back to the Ryman, which had been growing sad and neglected since the Grand Ole Opry moved out to the Opryhouse; by extension you could give her a lot of the credit for the restoration of downtown Nashville itself. But that’s another blog post. Contain yourselves, I’ll write it sometime. What I wanted to say was, I bloody love Emmylou Harris. She is clearly a woman imbued with the notion of paying it forward (to put it unpoetically), and overflowing both with taste and with generosity when it comes to younger artists or artists in need of a boost. She kicked off this major show with her fierce version of ‘Guitar Town’ (‘It’s your good-rockin’ mama down from Tennessee’). Nine years later, following the fall of Steve Earle, the years lost to frankly ridiculous levels of heroin abuse, the time in prison and the agonized recovery, he found himself recording in Nashville – a few days after getting out of jail – at the same time as Emmylou Harris was getting ready to make Wrecking Ball, which would be arguably her most seminal album ever. He sent her over some of the earliest cuts of what would become Train a Comin’, and she rang him up and asked him if she could borrow one of his songs. She put ‘Goodbye’, with Earle playing the guitar on it, right up front on that album, and it’s one of the finest tracks ever recorded, so I guess she knew what she was doing, but anyway she’s a hero. And again, there’s another blog post there.
I’m supposed to be writing about Guitar Town, so let me buckle down to it. Because I love it dearly. It screams the 1980s in the best possible way; rollicking, lolloping rock tunes with this country-ass drawl over the top and the most bitter-American lyrics you’ll ever have heard. In his next few albums Earle would veer towards much harder rock; lyrically, Vietnam would permeate his songs as it did so many other songs and films and everything in the late ‘80s, as if America was finally ready to open its eyes and take its hands off its ears and examine the long-term legacy of the war. Guitar Town came out in 1986, the same year as Platoon, and references do pop up – the ‘Good Ol’ Boy’ of ‘Gettin’ Tough’ had to get a GI loan to buy his home; but it’s dead-end jobs and lonesomeness and boredom and poverty and looming unemployment which hang over his protagonists and stories here – just good clean depression, in all senses of the word.
Nobody does story songs like Steve Earle, and nobody gives voices to the voiceless like he does on this album. Yes, the title track is sung, perhaps, from his own point of view, with the weary yet never exhausted energy of this most indefatigable musician; the words are outrageous: he sings about ‘local yokels’, and says, ‘Everybody told me that you can’t get far on thirty-seven dollars and a Jap guitar’. I mind the brilliance; it’s like reading a perfect sentence by PG Wodehouse, or Marilynne Robinson come to that.
Then you take a character like the young man in ‘Someday’ – God, what a song – this is about a boy who works pumping gas and who’s always watching people like Steve Earle – out of towners, with a destination – stream by. ‘They ask me, how far into Memphis, son, and where’s the nearest beer. They don’t even know that there’s a town around here.’ He dreams about going – off, in his car, as so many American dreamers do and always have – ‘Someday I’ll put her on the interstate and never look back’. Maybe he will. Steve Earle’s people are often restless; after all it was restlessness that got him, or at any rate the Guitar Town rocker, where he is – ‘I’m not the kind just to hang around.’
That ‘Good Ol’ Boy’, though, he’s not going anywhere, despite a penchant for a colourful phrase: his truck belongs to ‘me, and the bank, and some funny talking man from Iran’. He can’t go anywhere, he can’t get anywhere, because (like us, right now, as well as the people who were youngish in 1980s America), he ‘was born in a land of plenty, now there ain’t enough’; and because he’s got a wife and kids (‘and what would everybody say’). This is raw country, to me; and if a Bruce Springsteen fan were to tell me this is only the kind of thing the Boss wrote songs about I would say, well then, maybe the Boss is a country singer – this is about what it’s like to be poor, and to work your arse into the ground (like Merle Haggard’s ‘Workin’ Man’), only dreaming of ditching your responsibilities in the most desperate and private of moments – and still be only one step away from the welfare line.
Another aspect of this album which is undoubtedly country is the few bright moments of shameless sentiment. Steve Earle is not the fellow to worry that singing the line ‘I wonder what’s over that rainbow’ will impair his rock credibility. Moreover, the song ‘Little Rock n’ Roller’ is one of those songs – the kind you only find in country and in hip hop because anywhere else they would be intolerable; a love song not to a lover but to a child (or sometimes a parent: I’m looking at you, Kanye) – a song which wears its heart on its sleeve. No matter that the subject of this song, Justin Townes Earle, is now a thirty-four year old married man with a flourishing music career, an addiction history of his own and six feet five inches in height. For the purposes of this album, he will always be a four year old child, missing his daddy. God, I love this album.
There are these personal songs, or possibly personal. It’s always hard to tell whether Steve Earle is singing straight from the hip or if he’s made himself into a character; perhaps it’s hard not to do that when you have so much material. ‘Fearless Heart’ is a cracker – with lines like ‘I admit I fall in love a lot, but I nearly always give it my best shot’ (Earle was thirty-one when he made this album, and on his fourth wife), and yet, you believe in him, in his vision of himself, or his character’s vision of himself – I’m spiralling into Inception-like circles, but I can’t help thinking that Earle knows himself pretty well. Although perhaps that really came after his nadir and recovery…
I haven’t even delved into the Grapes of Wrath style historical-country of ‘Hillbilly Highway’, or the brief but unbelievably evocative last song ‘Down The Road’ – truly, I’m amazed it’s never been used for a perfume advert – and this piece is too long. So I’ll stop. But I will always delight in this record, not just as the debut of one of the best, but in itself, as one of the most lustrous shells tossed up by the foam of country music, and as an unabashed piece of glorious Americana.