Steve Earle and The Dukes
Steve emerged out of East Texas in the mid-eighties; there was something of a revival in country-rock music at the time with Guy Clarke (see C) and Lyle Lovett breaking through occasionally to the non-country music charts. Steve’s first album Guitar Town (1986) was a brilliant debut, all self-written songs which sound so good you cannot quite believe they weren’t standards already. The twangy guitar and great backing band complement Steve’s all-American but slightly weary voice – there is that yearning in the voice which draws you in. But it is really the incredible songwriting which is the key to Earle. Almost every song on the record is excellent; if I have to pick favourites – ‘Fearless Heart’, ‘My Old Friend The Blues’, ‘Little Rock’n’Roller’ (a phone call to a son he rarely sees from a father on the road and maybe on the run too) and the classic ‘Someday’ (a yearning to leave small-town hick America and get a life at last) The record was an almost instant hit in America and Canada – barely heard of in the UK. I caught up with Steve when I bought a CD single off album number 4, then I worked my way back.
The following year he brought out Exit 0. Another rollicking country rock jaunt, not quite such great songs as the debut but pretty good anyway. Best songs – ‘No. 29’, ‘San Antonio Girl’ and ‘I Aint Ever Satisfied’. A slightly bigger hit this time; Steve and the band were touring America and building a following for this new exciting rock music with a country twist. Great stuff.
Copperhead Road carried on in the same, if slightly rockier, way the following year. You do have to wonder just where all these great songs come from – is it just the excitement of youth and success, long hours on the tour bus, the sheer joy of discovering chords and words that go together. Who knows, but Steve kept pouring out superb songs. The sound was evolving a bit too, almost a folksy feel to some songs with violin and female backing too; Steve called it a mix of Bluegrass and Rock and even had the Pogues on one track. . Best songs ‘Copperhead Road’, ‘Devil’s Right Hand’ and ‘Nothing But A Child’
Then in 1990 Steve released what, up till then, was his best album The Hard Way. It is jam-packed with great songs and much longer than his earlier records too, some songs even 6 minutes long. The soundscape is broader too; in some ways it is a classic rock album just sung with a country voice. This was the first Steve Earle album I bought; I had the CD single ‘Justice in Ontario’ and loved it so I bought the album. And still love it. Best songs – again hard to choose but – ‘Have Mercy’. ‘Regular Guy’ and of course ‘Billy Austin’ (the song from a killer facing execution detailing the bleakness of his life) stand out slightly from a great record.
Then – we heard nothing for four years. Steve had a serious drug addiction and even spent time in prison during this time. He more or less disbanded his band ‘The Dukes’. His record company put out a live album “Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator” in ’91. Actually quite a cool live album, and a bonus track ‘Wild Horses’ – the Stones song at the end sung fantastically by Steve. In ’92 Live At the BBC came out. A great concert again. I also have The Collection which came out in 2002 but contains songs just from this early period up to 1990. An excellent compilation – all the hits, plus a couple of live tracks, even two by Springsteen (see S).
Steve was becoming a junkie however and even went to jail for a while on drug related offences. For four years he recorded nothing and the Dukes broke up. But he was always an irrepressible character, and he was writing songs in jail. He disbanded the Dukes and released a solo album in 1995 Trian a Comin