Guitar Town/Exit O
I can vividly recall the very first time I heard Steve Earle, although on first listen I thought it might be John ‘Cougar’ Mellencamp. I was in Lost Chord, a famous 2nd hand record shop in Glasgow’s West End, Park Road to be exact. This was the proverbial oasis for a record buyer and many a gem I picked up there after hours of flicking through the albums. When you came across something you really wanted your pulse quickened and you couldn’t wait to get home and and play it.
My friend Craig and I had a routine that involved visiting Listen/Joe Bloggs in Union St, 23rd Precinct in Bath St, underground to Kelvinbridge for Lost Chord then a walk over to Byres Road to visit Lost in Music in De Courcy’s Arcade and Echo in Byres Road itself. We also occasionally included the Record Exchange that had a shop at the bottom of Oswald St and another in Shawlands but it was always a bit on the expensive side for our pockets. Other record shops came and went and we included those while we also occasionally visited Futureshock a book store that specialised in fantasy and sci-fi books, comics etc. I was an avid reader of the fantasy genre in those days but grew out of them as I got older.
Sadly I think only Lost Chord still exists now although it has passed through a few owners and last time I was in I only stayed a few mins. I remember the original owner who I think was called Gordon, or at least the guy who owned it when we first went in, had a son with cerebral palsy and he sold the shop and his house and was going to move to Budapest so he could take his son to the Peto Institute which at the time was leading the way in teaching children with this condition. Never heard if he actually did go or not but he was a really nice guy and introduced me to a lot of new music.
The aforementioned record shops all contributed to both our growing record collections and in later years added to our cd collections. In a world before the Internet trying to find that elusive or rare album took a bit of leg work and good old fashioned luck. The record shops like HMV who only carried new stock didn’t cater for the back catalogues of lesser known artists so 2nd hand record shops could be potential gold mines and each visit would usually unearth a curio that would lead to tape decks being utilised unless we could find two copies. Whoever found the album had first dibs unless the made the school boy error of putting it back when undecided if they were buying it or not.
I didn’t buy the Steve Earle album on first listen though but my interest was piqued and on a return a week later the same album was playing, which may have been a coincidence or a clever ploy by the owner, but this time, even though I still thought it was Mr Mellencamp, I purchased Guitar Town without hesitation. A decision I’ve never ever regretted. The added bonus as it turned out was that the album was a year old and his 2nd album, Exit-O was also out and it soon was also added to the collection. Two great albums discovered just by browsing in a record shop. Not the first or last time this happened it has to be said.
These two albums are country rock at its finest. Country music in general isn’t a genre I listen to but Earle brought an anger and realism to the music that was missing in most of the mainstream country music that seemed to have the most contrived and almost laughable lyrics. Earle was, as one of his song titles declared, An Angry Young Man. He snarled and spat out his lyrics and his road songs told of the loneliness of being on the road and trying to make it while leaving his family behind. He also does what all the great singer/songwriters do and tell a great story from someone else’s perspective. Many of his songs are about the forgotten small town America where the industries and companies that provided employment for a whole town have long since departed or closed down and there was nothing to replace those lost jobs. He can paint a vivid picture of a depressing and heartbreaking landscape of hopelessness of the America that has largely been forgotten about.
To me these albums are companion albums that are the perfect starting point to explore Steve Earle further. It’s hard to not listen to one album without putting on the other straight after. Almost 30 years since first hearing Steve I’m still a huge fan and have seen him live over 20 times with both his band or solo acoustic. Rarely has he failed to deliver a thought provoking show and is as angry today as he was all those years ago.
He’s a man who has lived a life and then some. Married 7 times, including the same women twice, is currently separated from wife number 7, has 3 children, did some jail time and is a recovering heroin addict who quite frankly really should have been another rock n roll casualty but somehow he pulled himself back from the abyss and has now been on the straight and narrow for about 20 years. I can highly recommend the book Hardcore Troubadour which tells the story of Steve’s highs and lows and is an excellent story of his life although it can be rather harrowing at times.
He’s never scared to tackle political issues in his songs or even as an activist. He has campaigned all his life for justice be it for farmers, death row in mates, he’s a vocal opponent of the death penalty. He’s also made the odd TV appearance including a role in the Treme the story about New Orleans in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina and the struggles that were taking place. He also appeared in the Wire among other TV shows.
After these two albums Steve left his country roots behind and moved more into being a rock artist with albums The Hard Way and Copperhead Road with the latter’s title track bringing him his most successful moment. Like all the great singer/songwriters though he can switch between electric and acoustic without pausing for breath. The last couple of times I’ve seen him once was with a full band and before that he was on his own where he didn’t even have any road crew or personnel with him and all he carried was a mandolin and a guitar around with him from gig to gig. He really is one of the last of a dying breed of true road artists.
In my opinion Earle is up there with Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan as one of the greatest singer/songwriters of his generation. He may not have had the success of those mentioned but his songs more than deserve to be acclaimed alongside those of his contemporaries.
See you on week 20.