By Richard Skanse
(LSM May/June 2013/vol. 6 – Issue 3)
Don’t call Steve Earle’s 1995 album Train a Comin’ a “comeback.” Oh, it certainly met all the right criteria at the time of its release, coming five years after his previous studio set, The Hard Way, and just this side of his stints in jail and rehab for heroin addiction. But comebacks are a dime a dozen in the parlance of artist catalogs, and Earle’s Train a Comin’ was no mere return to form following a minor commercial misstep. It wasn’t even an artistic resurrection, so much as it was an honest-to-goodness rebirth. So call it what it really was: every bit as much of an out-of-nowhere, lightning bolt debut as his groundbreaking Guitar Town had been nearly a decade earlier.
Train a Comin’s significance as the reset and reboot button on Earle’s career becomes even clearer with the benefit of hindsight. Had Earle not beaten the Vegas odds against him and succumbed wholly to his addictions — as many a fan and industry insider back in the early ’90s assumed he already had prior to Train a Comin’s surprise arrival — his legacy would have been limited to two stone-cold classics (Guitar Town and 1988’s Copperhead Road), two lesser but better than usually given credit for follow-ups (1987’s Exit 0 and 1990’s The Hard Way), and one contract-fulfilling live album not half as memorable as its killer title (1991’s Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator). Not a bad run, by any means; “legends” have been built on less, and indeed, given pop culture’s habit of immortalizing artists who check out early, Earle’s name and music might be considerably more famous today if his story did end back then. But lost in that Faustian bargain would have been 20 years’ worth of the most unrepentantly passionate and exciting roots-rock and protest folk music to ever be seared into the Americana songbook.
Fortunately, things panned out in a win/win sort of compromise. Between Guitar Town and Copperhead Road, Earle garnered just enough mainstream success (not to mention critical acclaim) on both sides of the country and rock divide to lay the bedrock for a career that’s still standing. And though his days of charting hits may have been long gone by the time Earle kicked his hard drug habits and started anew in the mid ’90s, every album he’s made from Train a Comin’ through to 2013’s brand new The Low Highway has been testament to the higher standards of his own restless muse and the power behind his unrelenting convictions. At his very best (and even when he sometimes misses the mark), Earle stands out as arguably the most intriguing and daring American songwriter of his generation, his singular artistic voice suggesting the perfect storm of Townes Van Zandt’s poetic instincts, Guy Clark’s precision craftsmanship, and Woody Guthrie’s populist sense of purpose. And there’s more than a little of that scrappy, fearless-hearted rebel from Guitar Town still in the mix, too.
That young scrapper already had a lot of miles on him by the time he cut that full-length debut, having knocked around Nashville for the better part of a decade finding better company than luck. The San Antonio ex-pat fell in early with the Van Zandt/Clark crowd of simpatico maverick songwriters (as documented in the 1981 film Heartworn Highways), but spent years trying to get his career off the ground with little to show for his efforts save for a few fitful sparks. Pink & Black, a 1982 EP of rough and ready rockabilly originally released by LSI Records, an independent label started by one of his publishers, did land him in bed with Epic, but the union was a short one, spawning four singles that went nowhere and a record that didn’t even get that far (or at least not until 1987, when his then ex-label tried to recoup its losses on the heels of his later success elsewhere with the release of Early Tracks.) The same compilation was reissued a decade later on Koch, but its modest charms are best reserved for diehard fans; Guitar Town (MCA, 1986) is where Earle’s long road really begins.
Co-produced by Emory Gordy Jr. (George Jones, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless) and Tony Brown (the MCA A&R guru who signed Earle as well as Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, and Joe Ely to the label), Guitar Town holds up as not just one of the best country albums by a Texan to come out of Nashville in the ’80s (alongside Lovett’s self-titled debut and Rodney Crowell’s Diamonds & Dirt — both also produced by Brown), but as one of the best records of its era, period. From the very first line of the opening title track — “Hey pretty baby, are you ready for me?/It’s your good rockin’ daddy down from Tennessee …” — the whole album is propelled by a relentless focus and ultra-confidence that belies the fact that Earle, 31 at the time, had yet to achieve any measure of notable success in the music business. But it wasn’t empty swagger; along with 10 top-notch and frequently irresistibly catchy original tunes, Earle brought a palpable sense of do-or-die determination into the studio. As such, Guitar Town doesn’t sound like a promising-yet-tentative debut by some fresh-faced kid with room to grow so much as a perennial shoulda-been-a-contender’s last shot at glory. Earle seems to suggest as much in his liner notes for the 2002 remastered edition of the album, recounting the lean years leading up to the “eureka” impact of hearing Bruce Springsteen open a concert with his recent anthem, “Born in the U.S.A.” “I knew what to do,” Earle writes. “I needed a song custom-built to kick-start this record I was writing … I’ll write a record (even if I don’t have a record deal) and I’ll write it to BE a record — not just a sound recording but a document about me and my life and the lives that touch mine and if I listen closely and get it all down right and sing ’em like I mean it people WILL listen and they WILL care — even if it doesn’t have a chorus.”
The plan worked. Guitar Town didn’t take the country music world by storm right out of the gate, but it had staying power and enough attitude and choruses to garner glowing reviews from the rock press. And after the title track was finally released as a single, Guitar Town eventually rolled all the way to No. 1 on the country charts. Like Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. album, Guitar Town’s bright, ultra-clean production gives it an unmistakable mid-80s timestamp; but also like the Boss’ Me Decade juggernaut, every track on it at least sounded like a hit single. The infectious “Guitar Town,” hot wired by one of the twangiest guitar licks (courtesy Richard Bennett) this side of Duane Eddy, charted the highest (No. 7) and rightfully remains one of Earle’s best-known songs, but it wasn’t the album’s only hit. The equally sturdy, up-tempo country rocker “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left” also made it into the country top 10, “Hillbilly Highway” and “Someday” both cracked the country top 40, and the rest of the songs — most notably the melancholy “My Old Friend the Blues” and the more optimistic but equally vulnerable “Fearless Heart” — were just as strong. All in all, a knockout.
Albums on the level of Guitar Town are tough acts to follow, especially under the pressure of having to write on the road to meet a record-a-year deadline. But Exit 0 (MCA, 1987) comes remarkably close to hitting the same mark — almost to a fault. Apart from the distinction of having Earle’s road band, the Dukes, sharing the bill on the cover, this is essentially More Guitar Town; the opening “Nowhere Road,” in particular, is close enough to “Guitar Town” to share a zip code, if not a connecting eight-bar bridge. Déjà vu aside, though, it’s a great driving tune, and the sense of “if-it-ain’t-broke/don’t-fix-it” pervading the rest of the album is forgivable considering that after Exit 0, Earle would charge ahead into new sonic territory without ever really looking back again. And like its predecessor, the songs here are all first rate; highlights include the wistful Friday-night-lights reverie of “No. 29,” the Doug Sahm/Augie Meyers-spiced Tex-Mex romp “San Antonio Girl,” and the Buddy Holly-esque rave-up “I Love You Too Much.”
Where Exit 0 found Earle staying on cruise-control course down the country-rockabilly highway, Copperhead Road (UNI/MCA, 1988) was a sudden hard turn into off-road rock ’n’ roll. The gloves came off, too; while his first two records showed empathy for the working man’s blues (from the gas-station attendant in “Someday” to the struggling farmer in Exit 0’s “The Rain Came Down”), Copperhead Road was a powder keg of blue-collar angst with a dangerously short fuse. The skull and crossbones on the front cover and photo of a sleeveless, backwoods roughneck-looking Earle striking a match on the back said it all: this was one mean sumbitch of a record. Or at least it starts out as such. The dynamic opening title track has had the misfortune over the years to be misappropriated as both a bizarro world line-dancing favorite and as a Southern-pride anthem by the kind of fist-pumping, flag-waving yahoos who would scorn Earle as a Commie for his more explicitly political songs down the line (despite the fact that Earle was already bearing those fangs on the same album’s Regan-skewering “Snake Oil”); but taken on its own merits, “Copperhead Road” is still a magnificent work of gritty, thrill-packed pulp fiction that plays like a four-and-a-half minute movie. “Johnny Come Lately,” featuring spirited help from the Pogues, is even better, couching its sobering portrait of a Vietnam veteran’s homecoming in a rowdy Irish sing-along. But while the whole first half of the record (rounded out by “Back to the Wall” and “Devil’s Right Hand”) rocks like a bastard, the backend of the album is dominated by mid-tempo love songs that collapse under the weight of the Big ’80s production reminiscent of a Bon Jovi record. The lone exception is the closing “Nothing But a Child,” a disarmingly tender Christmas lullaby kissed by Lone Justice singer Maria McKee’s background vocals.
Much like Exit 0, The Hard Way (MCA, 1990) has long been overshadowed by its immediate predecessor. But although it’s admittedly over-long at just under an hour and burdened with even more of a hair-metal production aesthetic than Copperhead Road, it’s loaded with genuinely great songs: the anthemic “The Other Kind,” “Promise You Anything,” “Hopeless Romantics,” “Have Mercy,” and even “Regular Guy” are all worthy contenders for any essential Earle playlist. A lot of fans (and probably Earle himself) would doubtless include “Billy Austin” on said list, too, but frankly, it’s a groaner. Earle would express his passionate stance against the death penalty with far greater effectiveness and mature perspective later on in his career via both “Ellis Unit One” (from the soundtrack to Dead Man Walking and the odds-and-sods collection Sidetracks) and “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song),” from 2000’s Transcendental Blues; by comparison, the heavy-handed “could you still tell yourself that you’re better than I am?” card he plays in “Billy Austin” sounds like the closing argument of a painfully earnest freshman debate student.
After The Hard Way — or more specifically, after the dispiriting, gassed live document Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator (MCA, 1991) — Earle fell down the rabbit hole of cocaine and heroin addiction and was presumed dead; career-wise, at least. Then he emerged from his self-described “vacation in the ghetto” with his finest album yet at the time and arguably still his best ever. Stripped-down and acoustic — but not “unplugged,” as he stressed in the liner notes (“God I hate MTV,” he wrote) — Train a Comin’ (Warner Bros./E Squared, 1995) is actually predominately comprised of material he’d written long before Guitar Town, with only three songs (“Mystery Train Part II,” “Angel is the Devil,” and “Goodbye”) composed after The Hard Way. The recordings are all fresh and infused with a renewed lease on artistic life, though, and the quality of the writing is staggeringly good throughout. Knowing that Earle was writing songs on the level of “Ben McCulloch” and “Tom Ames’ Prayer” when he was only 20 years old goes a long way toward explaining how he found his in with Van Zandt and Clark during his wonder years, while the freshly-penned “Goodbye” proved that he still had the goods to match and top his own personal best. The covers are terrific, too — especially Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley” and the Beatles’ “I’m Looking Through You” — and the exquisite backing of acoustic all-stars Norman Blake, Peter Rowan and Roy Huskey seals the deal: Train a Comin’ is one of Americana music’s essential masterpieces.
As great as Train a Comin’ was, Earle’s next two albums were, remarkably, every bit as good. I Feel Alright (Warner Bros./E Squared, 1996) opens with an assertive bang, its defiant title track rocking harder than the whole first half of Copperhead Road: “Be careful what you wish for friend/Because I’ve been to hell and now I’m back again.” The slower songs are potent, too — from the heart-on-sleeve “Valentine’s Day” to the chilling “CCKMP” (“Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain”) — but the up-tempo tracks are downright exhilarating, with “Hard-Core Troubadour,” “More Than I Can Do,” and “Now She’s Gone” suggesting that Earle studied his Lennon and McCartney just as much as he did his Van Zandt and Clark. The piece de resistance, though, is “You’re Still Standin’ There,” a duet with Lucinda Williams the equal of anything on her own Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (which Earle helped produce). El Corazon (Warner Bros./E Squared, 1997) matches I Feel Alright stride for confident stride, though it opens with a very different (but equally powerful) sort of battle cry: “Christmas in Washington,” a world-weary sigh and prayer for deliverance — directed not to the Maker, but to Woody Guthrie, social crusader and patron saint of fascism-fighting folk singers. That the unabashedly liberal Earle wrote the song on the eve of Bill Clinton’s second term underscores the fact that his ’90s move into the activist/protest singer arena was motivated by concerns beyond red vs. blue partisanship. The rest of El Corazon isn’t driven by politics at all, though, so much as it is just a striking array of many of Earle’s strongest songs to date, ranging from the harrowing “Taneytown” to hooky roots and hard-rock anthems like “If You Fall,” “Telephone Road” and “N.Y.C.” And once again he saves the best for last, paying respects to his recently deceased friend and mentor Van Zandt with the devastatingly moving “Ft. Worth Blues.”
Next up, Earle teamed with the Del McCoury Band for an album of straight-up bluegrass, The Mountain (E Squared, 1999). It’s a little too much of a good thing. As one would expect from such an ensemble, the performances are impeccable, as are Earle’s original songs for the project (especially the title track); but the concentrated focus on one genre feels a bit anti-climactic coming after the eclectic trifecta of Train a Comin’, I Feel Alright and El Corazon. He quickly returned to more adventurous form though on Transcendental Blues (Artemis/E Squared, 2000), which essentially picks up right where El Corazon left off albeit with a little less roots and lot more Beatlesque melodies (and studio texturing) in the bold mix. Outside of the admittedly hokey “The Boy Who Never Cried,” there’s not a dud in the bunch, and picking highlights is really just a matter of hitting shuffle. Those insisting on download-sampling a song at a time, though, are directed to the edgy, feedback-drenched title track, the majestically melancholy “Lonelier Than This,” the conversely uplifting “When I Fall” (featuring a fetching duet vocal by sister Stacey Earle), and the intensely moving, achingly poignant death row ballad “Over Yonder (Jonathon’s Song),” which gets everything right that The Hard Way’s “Billy Austin” got wrong a decade before it.
In the spring of 2002, Earle released Sidetracks (Artemis/E Squared), a coll-ection of miscellaneous songs recorded for soundtracks interspersed with a few other previously unreleased odds and ends of late-90s vintage. It’s heavy on covers (ranging from Little Feet’s “Willin’” and Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” to Jimmy Cliff’s “Johnny Too Bad” and Nirvana’s “Breed”), and hardly essential. The quality varies wildly; the aforementioned “Ellis Unit One,” from Dead Man Walking, and “The Eagle,” from the celebrated Americana all-star soundtrack to The Horse Whisperer, are both grade-A Earle originals, but his duet with Sheryl Crow on the Chambers Brothers’ “The Time Has Come” is an utter train wreck. But as his next round of real records would prove decisively, Earle’s fire was just getting started.
While the second half of the ’90s represented a creative resurgence for Earle, the first five years of the new century marked his call to arms. In the wake of 9/11 and the escalating war on terror — fought not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but on American soil as debates raged over the Patriot Act, Constitutional freedoms, and a mid-war presidential election — Earle stopped writing catchy love songs for a spell and went full-bore fearless protest singer. The resulting albums, 2002’s Jerusalem and 2004’s The Revolution Starts … Now (both on Artemis/E Squared), feature some of the most bracing and controversial music of his career. And though the quality of the songwriting may not be near as uniformly excellent as his Train through Transcendental output, Earle never sounds less than fully invested in his cause, and that sense of purpose infuses both albums with a palpable urgency that makes even their imperfections interesting.
Jerusalem is home to the infamous “John Walker’s Blues,” the song that put Earle in the crosshairs of conservative pundits nearly a year before the Dixie Chicks landed on their radar. The “Copperhead Road” crowd wasn’t nuts about it, either, and even the most open-minded listener would have to admit that the song’s opening line — “Just an American boy, raised on MTV …” — is either risibly naïve or willfully provocative. Or both. Writing from a first-person perspective allows Earle a certain amount of distance from the subject; this is really just a character study, and though Earle makes a concerted effort to make sense of the “American Taliban’s” motivations, he stops short of cramming in the “who are you to judge” sort of moralizing that sank “Billy Austin.” Above all, though, “John Walker’s Blues” is incredibly compelling musically, with foreboding, droning verses giving way to a soaring chorus sung mostly in Arabic. And the rest of the album is equally arresting: “Conspiracy Theory” is a mess, but the opening one-two punch of “Ashes to Ashes” and “Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)” is as explosively thrilling as the closing “Jerusalem” is profoundly uplifting. Also of note are “The Kind” and “I Remember You” (a gorgeous duet with Emmylou Harris), two very fine albeit more conventional (i.e., non-political) songs that offer shelter from storm. Another Harris duet, “Coming Around,” serves a similar purpose on The Revolution Starts … Now, which overall is a little more reckless and messy than it’s predecessor but even more strident. “F the CC” is more bark than bite, and “Condi, Condi,” Earle’s Calypso-flavored faux love-letter to Condolezza Rice, is dire, but the thoughtful “Rich Man’s War” and the rocking, two-part title track bookending the record balance out the bad with good — not to mention the fact that “Home to Houston” is Earle’s flat-out best single since “Guitar Town.”
Sandwiched in between Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts … Now was a double live album, Just an American Boy (Artemis/E Squared, 2003); it’s fantastic. The mix is crisp and clean, with the Dukes captured in top form and Earle in particularly great voice. The performances are so good, even “Conspiracy Theory” and “Billy Austin” sound great here, and Earle’s stage patter and song intros are as entertaining as the songs themselves. It’s a far, far better live document than ’91’s aforementioned Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator, and markedly superior even to the two otherwise recommendable Austin City Limits performances issued as part of New West Records’ Live from Austin TX series (the first, from 2004, dusts off a rockin’ post-Guitar Town/pre-Exit 0 taping from 1986; the second, from 2008, features a show from 2000 heavy on some of his best ’90s material.)
Where Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts … Now sprang from the same activist mindset and played like Phase I and II of a two-pronged attack on the masters of war, Earle’s next three albums were each their own very different animal. The best of the bunch was the first, 2007’s Washington Square Serenade (New West), which was also Earle’s first album after marrying Oscar-nominated singer-songwriter Allison Moorer and moving from Tennessee after more than 30 years for New York City. Along with those significant life changes, Earle took a leap of artistic faith outside of his analog comfort zone and dived into the world of drum loops and Pro Tools. After demoing his new songs solo with acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, bouzouki, and sampler, he entrusted full production duties to John King of the Dust Brothers (Beastie Boys, Beck). The result: a Grammy-winning Best Contemporary Folk/Americana album that married Greenwich Village-era Dylan vibe with a modern DJ aesthetic. Although it’s by no means a “techno” album, there’s just enough of that element there to goose the otherwise sparely recorded and predominantly acoustic tracks with skittery shocks of electric current and fray the edges. The pulsing, multi-cultural energy of the Big Apple charges Earle’s songwriting, too, most notably in the majestic “Down Here Below” and the vibrant “City of Immigrants.” From the scratchy transmission of “Satellite Radio” to the claw-hammer banjo snarl of “Oxycontin Blues,” Washington Square Serenade stands as the most eclectic and adventurous album Earle’s ever made, and his best since El Corazon.
After his invigorating dance with modern sonic tech, Earle went back to his for-the-sake-of-the-song roots with Townes (New West, 2009), a 15-song tribute to his late friend and hero Van Zandt. The quality of the source material, naturally, is indisputable, and Earle does right by the maestro with his mostly straightforward, stripped-down renditions (the most notable and inspired exception being his dip back into his Washington Square bag of techno tricks for “Lungs.”) The not-just-the-hits track list is intriguing, too; “Pancho and Lefty” is here, but not “If I Needed You.” But as commendable as the album is as a sincere labor of love — and despite it winning Earle another Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammy — in the big picture of both Earle’s own career and Van Zandt’s legacy, it feels tangential. While there may be a few post-mainstream (Guitar Town/Copperhead Road) Earle aficionados who aren’t just as familiar with Van Zandt’s music, odds are most fans of one are already fans of the other — and nobody’s gonna reach for Earle’s Townes if a copy of Live at the Old Quarter or even Flying Shoes is handy. Or, for that matter, the splendid 2001 multi-artist Townes tribute Poet, for which Earle contributed “Two Girls.” (Footnote: Earle also named his son, Justin Townes Earle, after his hero; that’s Justin singing with his dad on Townes’ “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold.”)
For his next album of original material, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (New West, 2011), Earle teamed with celebrated Americana producer T Bone Burnett (O Brother, Where Art Thou, Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, Ryan Bingham). As forecast by the Hank Williams-borrowed title, several of the songs find Earle wrestling in one way or another with thoughts of mortality in the wake of his father’s death. Some of the songs here are arguably the most personal Earle’s ever written (“Waitin’ on the Sky,” “Every Part of Me,” and especially “God Is God,” a transcendently sincere expression of faith in a higher power); others are more topical in focus (ranging from “Little Emperor,” his don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out farewell to George W., to “This City,” a paean to the resiliency of post-Katrina New Orleans originally penned for TV’s Treme.) Whatever the subject matter, though, there’s enough strong material for a very good Steve Earle album; pity, then, that so much of it is mired in the soupy atmospherics that have become Burnett’s trademark of late.
Thankfully, Earle’s latest, The Low Highway (New West, 2013), reunites him with Ray Kennedy, his “Twangtrust” partner with whom he co-produced all of his albums from El Corazon through The Revolution Starts … Now. Veteran Dukes Kelley Looney (bass) and Will Rigby (drums) are also back after a three-album break, along with newer Duke Chris Masterson (guitar, pedal steel) and Duchesses Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle, mandolin) and Allison Moorer (keyboards and vocals). The most noticeable return of all, though, is the ghost and influence of Woody Guthrie, guiding Earle back out onto the titular low highway to document the lives and struggles of the 99 percent. Moreso than even his Bush-era protest albums, this is Earle’s truest pure folk record. From the streets of New Orleans (“After Mardi Gras,” “That All You Got?”) to the Wallmart parking lot (“Burnin’ It Down”) to the meth-head wasteland of “Calico County,” song after song on The Low Highway is given over to the perspective of Americans holding on for dear life through “hard times in the new millennium, gettin’ by on just the bare minimum” (“21st Century Blues”) — or, in the case of the homeless soul in “Invisible,” not even that much. But against seemingly insurmountable odds, it’s a record infused with hope, too — or at least a stubborn faith that the possibility of hope is still worth holding out for. In “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way,” Earle takes a cue from the wily, resourceful Bob Dylan and “borrows” the timeless melody from Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” for a song that’s as ebullient as it is winsome:
Standin’ in the pourin’ rain
Really comin’ down but someday
Love’s gonna blow my way …”
Such sunny optimism, so admittedly out of place in the midst of the grim landscape surveyed by much of the rest of The Low Highway, harkens back to the seemingly unattainable, “over the rainbow” escapist fantasy of the small town daydreamer in Guitar Town’s “Someday.” But as he put it best elsewhere on that same album:
“I can’t promise this’ll work out right
but it would kill me darlin’ if we didn’t even try
I got me a fearless heart
Strong enough to get you through the scary part.”
Nearly three decades on from their humble debut in a country love song, those four lines now hold up as the perfect encapsulation of their writer’s entire career. The fact is, hopeless romantics, hardcore troubadours, and activist folk singers really aren’t all that hard to come by in the music world. But as the epitome of all of the above, Steve Earle has always been, and remains, a breed apart.
MR. RECORD MAN’S TOP 5 STEVE EARLE ALBUMS
1) Train a Comin’ (Warner Bros./E Squared, 1995)
After an alarming stretch in “whatever-happened-to-ville,” Steve Earle emerged from his self-described “vacation in the ghetto” with this arresting, stripped-down showcase of his songwriting prowess at its unvarnished best. A lot of the songs dated all the way back to his very early 20s, but everything on Train a Comin’ heralded a fresh start and new lease on Earle’s life and career. In a word, indispensible. Hightlights: “Goodbye,” “Tom Ames’ Prayer,” “Ben McCulloch”
2) El Corazón (Warner Bros./E Squared, 1997)
After Train a Comin’, Earle punctuated his return to form and cranked up the volume with two back-to-back, tour-de-force classics. The first, I Feel Alright, was a staggeringly assertive opening salvo, and El Corazón was even better. Every song on here is damn near perfect, and even the sequencing is masterful: No matter how many times you play the album, the transition from the quiet opening prayer of “Christmas in Washington” into the menacing intro of “Tanneytown” is exhilarating. Highlights: “Christmas in Washington,” “Telephone Road,” “Ft. Worth Blues”
3) Guitar Town (MCA, 1986)
Even compared to 1988’s aggressive Copperhead Road and the markedly more diverse body of work he’s amassed since Train a Comin’, Earle’s 1986 debut holds up strong as one of the defining albums of his career. There may only be hints here of the firebrand instigator he would develop into down the line, but there’s an undeniable swagger — not to mention unrelenting catchiness — to Guitar Town that still delivers fresh kicks with every twangy note. Highlights: “Guitar Town,” “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left,” “Someday”
4) Washington Square Serenade (New West, 2007)
With VIP assistance from producer John King of the Dust Brothers, Earle proves that an old but bold dog can learn and master any number of new tricks. The unlikely combo of acoustic instrumentation and sampled loops and beats works brilliantly, and the songwriting throughout is equally fresh and inspired. Highlights: “Down Here Below,” “City of Immigrants,” “Oxycontin Blues”
5) The Low Highway (New West, 2013)
It’s a three-way dead heat between this one and 1996’s excellent I Feel Alright and even 2002’s imperfect but impassioned Jerusalem, but in the interest of keeping pace with Earle’s own forward momentum, we’ll give his latest the edge by merit of its laser-sighted focus on addressing the state of a nation fallen on hard times but not yet down for the count. Hightlights: “Burnin’ It Down,” “Invisible,” “21st Century Blues”