Sunday, February 1, 2009

Steve Earle (AKA, Walon from HBO's The Wire)

Steve Earle is another of the artists that the Music Man practically forced upon me during my freshman year of college.

It was 1986 and I'd been talking to Joe (damned if I can remember his last name now), who was the chief buyer for the store, and mentioned that I didn't like country music. Of course, what I really meant is that I didn't know country music outside of the Urban Cowboy crap that was being called country in the 1980s. Joe sent me home with a copy of Guitar Town, the debut from Steve Earle, and a guarantee that I would like it or he'd buy it back from me.

I liked it. Outside of a live album that Steve released 1991 to get out of his contract with MCA ("Shut Up And Die Like an Aviator" is actually an OK record, but see the remark in my rambling BUI post about my general discomfort with live recordings), it would start a streak of 8 studio albums from Steve over a 14-year period that I liked. (And the album that ended that streak, 2000's Transcendental Blues, is actually a damn good one, or it would be if not for the weird production that seems to drag the music and vocals through muddy cheesecloth.)

Here's one of the great things about Steve that makes me such a fan: although with his first album there was much talk about him being a future country music legend in the making, he's not a country artist. He also happens to not be a rocker or a folkie or a bluegrass artist or any of those things, even though he had recorded albums in all of those styles through the years. Whatever the hell he feels like at any given moment, that's what he writes and records. On his last many albums -- those since 1994 -- he will include upwards of half a dozen styles on each. I'm not aware of his having tried jazz, but it wouldn't surprise me if he eventually decides to give that a go, too.

The fact that he also managed to play an interesting (not to mention, somewhat autobiographical) character in The Wire on HBO, my absolute favorite TV show -- I'm telling you, this show ranks with my all-time favorite movies, books, and albums -- hasn't hurt my standing as a fan of the man. Throw in the fact that his 1994 angry rock song "I Feel Alright," was used for The Wire's second season finale montage, and I go from being a fan to being in awe.

Three videos that I'll note.

The first is for "Someday," (click the link to see the YouTube video: Universal has disabled embedding of their videos) one of the singles off Guitar Town. Fantastic song that highlights why Steve was being referred to as the Nashville Bruce Springsteen for a couple of years back there at the beginning.

The second video is for "City of Immigrants," (link to YouTube again: his new label, New West, also prevents embedding) a song off his latest album, Washington Square Serenade. Not only a good song, but it should demonstrate that the man will not be pigeonholed by musical genre. This song features a NYC band, "Forro in the Dark," which takes a type of Brazilian dance music, forro, and updates it with a whole strange mix of influences, including country and hip hop, the sort of thing that almost guarantees a respectful nod from Steve.

The third video (embedded just below: I guess a handful of people still allow it) is a fantastic clip from the Heartworn Highways DVD that shows a 20-year-old Steve at a Christmas Eve picking party at Guy Clark's house in 1975. Steve had just recently moved to Nashville to play bass on Guy's debut album, Old No. 1, which is very much worth the time to check out. He would kick around Nashville as a staff song writer for another 10 years before MCA signed him to a recording contract of his own. This video shows a whole other side of Steve, one that is best documented on his unbelievable Train a Comin' album, which he put out in 1993 after he was released from a six-month stint in jail that included drug rehab, which quite possibly saved the man's life, not to mention allowed him to stage a near-miraculous career comeback.

UPDATED: I just found this video that's part of a Pogues documentary and concerns their collaboration with Steve on his song, "Johnny Come Lately," from his Copperhead Road album.

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