I had always heard about Steve Earle and how wonderful his songs were; how he was a part of the group of "chosen ones" from which the next Bob Dylan would emerge. He was the last of a dying breed, a true country outlaw who would not be defined by the Nashville norms of so many other lost souls. While Nashville and its scene painted itself red and cloaked itself in the warm, comfortable and very successful blanket of redneck cliches, half-assed drinking songs, pop-country pseudo crossovers and painful testicle-less love ballads, Steve Earle maintained a country music that both we, our grandfathers, our weird hipster cousin, and our old dirty uncle could all enjoy at the same time. No easy feat in today's inconsistent and impatient world of popular music. Because of his refusal to sell out, and because of several years of intense struggles with drugs, Steve Earle will never be mentioned in the same breath as so many of his popular country music peers from his time, like Garth Brooks, George Strait, Randy Travis or Brooks and Dunn. Steve didn't sell out stadiums and arenas. He didn't have 40 number one hits, nor do most people even know one of his songs outside of maybe Guitar Town and Copperhead Road (perhaps some know that now infamous, yet beautifully written John Walker's Blues, but only because of the stir and uproar it caused).
But friends I will tell you that when I finally decided to check out this Steve Earle guy, about whom I admittedly only new two songs (the ones mentioned earlier of course), I was amazed. He wasn't the next Dylan, he was some combination of Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen all wrapped into one. (As a quick side note I realize that I am beginning a trend in my posts that involve a sort of backhanded jab or poke at our Lord and Savior Robert Zimmerman. I like Dylan as much as the next guy, but find much of his music inaccessible and pretentious. I would write more but I'm already long-winded enough and this deserves its own post). His songs were very simple, yet so very powerful and moving. He drifted in and out of bluegrass, country, rock and roll, and sometimes even Irish folk music and meshed it all together beautifully. He had the grit and texture of Merle, the social conscience of Neil Young, the voice that was just a little left of center like Willie, and the ability to somehow make the whole so much greater than the sum of its parts like The Boss. How had I missed out for so long on something so extraordinary?
I began my journey with 2000's unbelievable Transcendental Blues. His blending of Irish folk themes and instruments with his rugged voice and alt-country lyrics is beyond incredible. This is one of only a few albums by anyone that I can put on any time and listen from start to finish. Some of the high points for me are the eerie Boy Who Never Cried, playful Steve's Last Ramble, agonizing Lonelier Than This, the bluegrass romp Until the Day I Die, and the absolutely devastating Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song) is one of the most powerful yet understated songs I have ever heard. The entire album takes you through the entire spectrum of his style and ability and shows you his uncanny ability to blend so many different themes and ideas together. Other albums from this time that I would absolutely lend my seal of approval to are 1996's I Feel Alright, 1997's El Corazon (probably my second favorite behind TB), and 2002's Jerusalem. There are others like 1995's Train A Comin' and 1999's The Mountain that are also good, but I have not given them the time they deserve for a true endorsement.
Then came 2004's The Revolution Starts Now. It's not a bad record. In fact I think that some of the songs are pretty good, and I appreciate Steve's insistence on creating a record that carried some political and social weight. But something never quite fit. There was something missing, or rather something added that caused some of that Steve Earle simplistic magic and heart to vanish. It seemed like it was done by a man who knew he had something important to say and made sure that he added enough firepower to ensure that it could not fly under the radar. The only problem was that this was against everything that we knew and loved about Steve Earle. He was ours. We knew him. So what if he wasn't on the cover of magazines. So what if he didn't get mentioned at the CMA's or the Grammy's. He was above all that. Just big enough that those who knew him could have others to gush to about his brilliance, but just far enough under the radar that it seemed like we had something special.
Of course there is a flip side to every coin. Artists must be allowed to grow or they begin to sound the same, or at least the ones who are mediocre songwriters at best do. This was always my argument against Dave Matthews. Yeah his first two albums were good, but what then? Everything sounded the same. He was finally exposed for the C-minus songwriter that he is. The band couldn't carry him anymore. This didn't seem to apply to Steve Earle. He had already had his metamorphosis after prison and rehab, and we were all just lucky enough that he still had something to say. Why abandon what was so extraordinary to create something so overdone and self-indulgent? Doesn't he know that he is supposed to make music for me and not for anyone else?
This leads us to his latest record, Washington Square Serenade. It essentially picks up where Revolution (and some might even say Jerusalem, but I am not one of them) ends. It has some very well written songs, many of them socially or politically charged, but the delivery just seems out of place to me. I cannot imagine listening to The Galway Girl from Transcendental Blues or Tanneytown from El Corazon with those awful synthetic drum beats that happen throughout Washington Square Serenade. It just doesn't seem right. There is beauty in simplicity and that beauty is just lost in this album. It's uneven, it's borderline pretentious, and it completely alienates those of us who have supported and loved all of the amazing work that Steve Earle has done during the course of his career.
I have heard some people say that the reason this album is so distracting and uneven is because Steve has finally found his true home in New York City and wanted this album to represent the fast-paced, never sleeping rattle and hum of his new home. That may very well be the case, and he may very well love New York. But I've been to New York too and I loved it as much as the next guy. My question is where were all of these New York music snobs when Steve was putting out any of the album gems that I mentioned earlier? They were at their personal pretentious New York coffee shop waxing poetic about the brilliance of Radiohead or Coldplay or even Dave Matthews. How many of them even know who Townes Van Zandt was (for those of you wondering he was the personal hero/friend/mentor/bandmate of our friend Mr. Earle, and the namesake of his son, Justin Townes Earle)? But I guarantee you now that he is "one of them" there will be a Steve Earle renaissance in our near future. That's just how it works in New York.
As for Steve Earle, no I don't like this album. Yes I am disappointed. No I don't like him any less. He is a great artist. He's one of the greatest country songwriters of all time and granddaddy of alt-country music. Folks like Whiskeytown, Son Volt, Old Crow Medicine Show and others need to look upon him in reverence, for he was the one that paved the way for their success. While he will never be mentioned in the same breath as Garth, George Strait and others, he just might come up in discussions about Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Don Williams and Townes Van Zandt for the under appreciated and underrated country artists and songwriters of all time. Yeah, I think I can live with that. I hope Steve can as well.