Steve Earle

Steve Earle

Guitar Town

MCA / Universal

Steve Earle’s first cohesive album, and arguably his finest collection of songs — but not his debut — is spiffed up with sparkling sound, reprinted lyrics, an extra track and some self-deprecating liner notes from the artist himself. Call it the starving artist syndrome, but back in 1986, when Guitar Town was first released, Earle was a struggling 31-year-old, twice-divorced songwriter who had been pounding down Nashville doors for over a decade without much to show for the effort. Selling out didn’t suit him — although he tried — so when he landed the deal that led to this album, he wrote about what he felt, what he understood and lived, i.e. lost love, endless road trips, and dead-end lives in dead-end towns. Little did he know it at the time, but his honest tunes — apparently inspired by seeing Bruce Springsteen live — gave a name to a new country music sub-genre; outlaw Americana. Although only 10 songs long — now expanded to 11 with a live version of Springsteen’s “State Trooper” that was originally a B-side, tacked on — Guitar Town, featuring Earle’s scruffy, high-lonesome, quivering vocals and literate, earnest lyrics resounded like a cannon through the glittery, stuffy Nashville music industry. Along with the West Coast’s Dwight Yoakum and to a lesser extent Lyle Lovett, he personified a new style of Nashville artist. Gruff and in-your-face, Earle was a rocker with a country heart, mixing the forceful attack of The Rolling Stones (whose “Dead Flowers” he often covered live) with the heartfelt approach of Hank Williams. That many of the songs here remain in his live set over 15 years later is a testament to not only how resilient they have become, but how essential Earle still feels they are to his own career. “Someday,” “Fearless Heart,” “Good Ole’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough),” and the title track sound as vibrant and contemporary today as when they were first unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Earle has released other important albums since, but the songs here reverberate with a hunger and intensity that have seldom been captured as effectively. It’s a classic album from a major artist, and should be one of the cornerstones in any country-rocker’s collection.

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