Steve Earle’s Hope on the Highway
By Jay Orr
Vol. 8, No. 3, 1986, pp. 19-21
Steve Earle has caused a stir in the Nashville music industry with the release of his debut album, Guitar Town, on MCA records. In February 1985, I first saw Earle and his rock ‘n’ roll band, the Dukes, in the basement of a high-rise residence hall at Vanderbilt University. On that Friday night he played to a disappointing turnout. Despite the small draw-fifty or seventy-five at most – Earle appeared shy and retreating, but engaging all the same. His four single releases on the Epic label had not achieved any commercial success, and Earle’s performance had a devil-may-care quality. Now he has signed with the Nashville (read “country”) office of another major label, and Guitar Town, with its fetching combination of rock rhythms, socially-conscious themes, and pedal steel and twangin’ guitars, has won the attentive ear of this town and the nation.
In his first single from Guitar Town, “Hillbilly Highway,” Earle sings in the voice of a character whose lineage has always answered the call of opportunity. Grandfather left home and the mines for a job in Detroit; as a young man, father also goes away-first to college and then to a job in Houston; and the narrator quits school to learn guitar and become a musician.
Earle himself left school after the eighth grade for the same reasons. From his home near San Antonio, Earle traveled around Texas and Mexico, associating with and learning from older songwriters like Townes Van Zant (for whom his son is named), Richard Dobson, Rodney Crowell, and Guy Clark. He put in a stint as a bassist in Clark’s band.
Earle moved to Nashville in 1974, where he worked at the usual odd jobs (tennis court builder, billboard hanger, carpenter) while he nurtured his musical ability in bars, honky tonks, and coffee houses. He also went through three marriages in pursuit of his elusive dream to become a successful songwriter.
In 1982 a small independent Nashville label, LSI, issued Earle’s premier recording, a four-song disc entitled Pink and Black. He signed with Epic in 1983, and that label released four respectable, rockabilly-style singles over the next two years.
During the lean years Earle did score as a songwriter. His songs were recorded by Carl Perkins and Waylon Jennings, and by younger artists like Vince Gill and Steve Wariner. Johnny Lee had a top ten hit with “When You Fall in Love,” a song from the early LSI ep, with help from vocalist Kim Wilson of Austin’s Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Guitar Town appears when Nashville record offices are scrambling to re-establish an identity that will appeal both to traditional country audiences and to the record-buying youth market. “Urban Cowboy” chic has faded, and country music sales figures show a corresponding decline relative to the years of abnormal prosperity. Country label executives have gone in search of artists like Gill, Wariner, Marty Stewart, Dwight Yoakum (with whom Earle is frequently compared), Randy Travis, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, T. Graham Brown, Rodney Crowell, and Rosanne Cash, in hopes that the more progressive images of those artists will help shed the rural, provincial stereotype associated with country music. Of this crop of new artists only Earle has made an aggressive charge at the problems confronting blue-collar youth in rural communities.
Some of Earle’s compositions have a political and
social perspective that parallels the recent work of rock musicians Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp. This might surprise some, coming as it does from a Nashville artist who, in his MCA biography, says of his music: “It’s country ’cause I talk like this. And it’s country because I write lyrics, and I tell stories, and I record in Nashville.” Political statements by country artists and on Nashville recordings have often distinguished themselves by their conservative, reactionary attitudes rather than by any progressive urges. Songs like Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” “The Fighting Side of Me,” and “Are the Good Times Really Over,” and, more recently, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U. S. A.,” and Kenny Rogers’s “The Pride is Back,” have extolled the patriotic status quo and made country artists popular visitors to the White House during the Johnson, Carter, Nixon, and Reagan administrations.
Earle maintains a different music tradition, as common as the penchant for jingoistic themes but seldom acknowledged by those who would dismiss all country music as right-wing hayseed warblings. Like recent releases by Hank Williams Jr. (“This ain’t Dallas”), Alabama (~40 Hour Week”), and Dwight Yoakum (“Miner’s Prayer”), Earle champions frustrated working men and women, and disillusioned young people in anthemic couplets like the one in “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)”: Gettin’ tough /Just My Luck/I was born in the land of plenty now there ain’t enough/Get/in’ cold/I’ve been told/Nowadays it just don’t pay to be a good ol’ boy.
In “Someday,” the interstate highway hides a small town from motorists bound for Memphis, but it also promises a way out for the narrator who frets over the narrative possibilities:
There ain’t a lot that you can do in this town/ You drive down to the lake and then you turn back around/ You go to school and you learn to read and write/ So you can walk into the county bank and sign away your life.
Earle also writes of the personal reverberations of life in a changing and uncertain time. “Goodbye’s All We Got Left,” “My Old Friend the Blues,” “Think It Over,” and “Down the Road,” (Earle’s closing song in live performances) touch emotional places left tender by daily anxieties. “Little Rock ‘n’ Roller” will affect all who have had to communicate over miles with a little loved one.
In an interview with Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, Earle offered an assessment of the role he hopes his songs can fill:
“In the end, you either cheer people up [with your songs] or help them exorcise some problems they have–and people need a bit of both right now. The mood of the country as a whole is that things aren’t as they are being advertised. Lots of people are going hungry. Even more have had to downscale their expectations. They are confused. They remember everything they heard about this country in school and they wonder what happened to it.”
With the help of a strong band, bright production, and appealing melodies, Earle’s powerful lyrical offerings do cheer and exorcise at once.
Guitar Town has won acclaim from pop music’s critical heavyweights, and Earle has toured nationally with another group of critics’ darlings, the Replacements, a hard-edged rock band from Minneapolis. In his interview with Hilburn, Earle promised that his next album, “will lean more toward social observation and commentary than [Guitar Town].” Good news for those of us who hope Nashville and country musicians can continue to produce music with regional, cultural, and social importance.
Jay Orr works at the library of the Country Music Foundation in Nashville.