El Corazon. The Heart. Steve Earle's new disc is exactly that. Twelve slices of Steve Earle's heart for your listening pleasure. A 12-pack of the brew that runs through his veins. And it's mighty potent stuff.
Steve Earle has never released a bad album. Even when Steve went to Hell, the South Nashville section of Hell to be exact, he made good records. (But don't try this at home boys and girls; it takes a trained professional.) Meanwhile, Steve was running the streets with the Devil himself. And the Devil is a sweet talking Motherfucker. But he's cold, and he will make you do things that you wouldn't want your Mama to find out about. So Steve ends up in jail for a while. While there, he tells the Devil to kiss his ass and he cleans up and starts exorcising the demons from his soul and his veins. When he finally gets out of jail, the therapy really starts. And the therapist is an old Gibson guitar.
First he gives us Train A' Comin'. An all-acoustic disc with legends Peter Rowan, Norman Blake, and Roy Huskey Jr. Then he gives us I'm Alright, where Steve plugs in, cranks up, and blows the cobwebs out of his brain. Next in the Holy Trinity of Steve Earle's Resurection is El Corazon. Helped along on his mystic quest by fellow travelers Emmylou Harris, The Fairfield Four, The Supersuckers, The Del McCoury band, and his son Justin, Steve runs us down the road of life. And this time he's not running down the Lost Highway. He's been there, done that, and got the alimony payments to prove it. Nope, This is a trip down the road of life. Sometimes it rains, sometimes the sun shines, sometimes you break down, but it is always changing and you got to keep running it the very best you can.
Steve Earle is one of the greatest and most underappreciated songwriters in America today. His words have been recorded by Vince Gill, Jason and The Scorchers, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Del McCoury and many others. But don't think that Steve Earle is just another Nashville hack songwriter. Folk, Bluegrass, Country, Rock, Pop, and Alternative, Steve is comfortable with it all. And it's all on this disc.
El Corazon starts out with "Christmas in Washington," a Woody Guthriesque plea for the common man. It's just Steve and a guitar. Next comes "Taneytown," which sounds like a meeting of Crazy Horse and Guy Clark, with Emmylou Harris as referee. "Taneytown" will also be a part of a collection of short stories Steve is putting out this fall.
"If You Fall" is a song where the main character is telling his buddy about how bad he is going to get screwed up if he gets involved with this woman, so just to save his friend the pain, he gets involved with her himself. What are friends for?
"I Still Carry You Around" is a pure Bluegrass number was written just so Steve would have a song to play with The Del McCoury Band. "You Know the Rest," an acoustic bluesy romp, has long been a staple of Steve's live show, and here it features backing vocals and mandolin from Ronnie "Don't touch the sideburns" McCoury. Also gracing this track is the subtle bass playing of the late Roy Huskey Jr., part of the Train a Comin' band, who recently lost a long battle with lung cancer.
"N.Y.C." is a midlife crisis set to music. It starts out acousticly and then goes wild, cranked up, and rocked-out with Steve singing through a distorter. "Poison Lovers" is a duet featuring the wonderful, beautiful vocal talent of Siobhan Kennedy, wife of Twangtrust co-producer Ray Kennedy.
"The Other Side of Town," with Roy Huskey Jr. and Del McCoury fiddler Jason Carter, sounds as if it was lifted off an old Bluebird 78rpm. With needle scratches and all. As Traditional Country as an AP Carter tune. I dare you to not to sing along. "Here I Am" features Steve's son Justin Earle on Guitar and is a declaration of life.
El Corazon concludes with "Ft Worth Blues," a song about Steve's long time mentor and friend Townes Van Zandt. Steve once said "He's a great inspiration, but he's a real bad role model." Steve later goes on to say "I wrote this song for very personal and specific reasons that I won't get into except to say that when Townes Van Zandt died I lost a friend I'd had since I was seventeen years old. I still have a hard time imagining the rest of my life without Townes." Townes had a fight with his heart and lost on New Years Day 1997.
El Corazon is by far the best record Steve Earle has ever made. There's not a bad cut on it. The troubles and trials, pleasure and pain, joys and sorrows of life have all worked together to forge Steve Earle into a poet, a philospher, and a troubador. It's not Country, It's not Rock, it's not Alternative anything. Nope, it's life. In all it's various colors, shapes, and sizes. It's about the heart. Because your heart is the only thing you can trust. You may not realize it, but your brain is out to kill you. Listen to your heart. It won't steer you wrong. And get this disc and listen to Steve Earle's heart. It's still beating strong. Townes would be proud.
This ain't no part of no unplugged nothin'," Earle writes testily in the liner notes to Train A-Comin'. A hillbilly singer shouldn't have to make such a statement, but these days, acoustic country music is considered a novel way of doing things. Say the word "unplugged" to any three random bluegrass musi- cians, however, and you'll hear some mighty eloquent snorts.
The bluegrass musicians playing with Earle on Train A Comin' aren't exactly any random three, and Earle makes sure we know that "the great players on this record" -- Peter Rowan, Norman Blake and Roy Huskey -- play acoustic music "every day of their lives come hell or high water." We're not talking rockers trying to figure out how to get percussion without drums. By playing with three of the best acoustic musicians in the business, Earle isn't so much breaking with tradition as tapping into one. Earle is no stranger to the concept "acoustic" either; he's toured solo over the years ("whenever I was feeling out of touch or I needed the money"). Besides, he writes, "I made most of these songs before I was plugged in the first place."
Still, over the course of five albums (including a live CD), Earle has travelled further and further into the rocking side of things, and with this album he's gone back to basics, producing an album so country it's called folk. It's a deceptively simple gesture. Like Johnny Cash's American Record- ings, Train A Comin' is tougher and more demanding for its lack of electric flash. Earle gets inside of the songs and sings his way out of 'em, with the brilliant accompaniment of Rowan, Huskey, and Blake acting as both anchor and spur.
And what songs! As comeback albums go, this is one for the books. A guy who drops out of sight for years, goes through a couple of marriages and re- marriages, bottoms out on drugs, and then pulls a handful of old unreleased songs out of a drawer, adds a few new ones and a couple of covers, and comes back with an album this good has got one hell of a muse looking after him. The outlaw songs like "Mercenary Song," and "Ben Ames' Prayer," are tempered by bittersweet, heart-worn songs like "Goodbye", catchy fluff like the Lennon- McCartney cover "I'm Looking Through You," and Norman Blake's instrumental, "Northern Wind," the quiet before the storm of "Ben McCulloch." But it's not just a matter of bad-guy songs and sad-guys songs; it's not just the barely reined-in excitement of the playing by legends Rowan, Blake and Huskey; not just the vibrant vocals by Rowan and Emmylou Harris weaving around Earle's raw emotional singing. It's all of that, but put it all together: it's the soul.
This is the quality that first drew me to Earle's music and held me. The first album I heard was Copperhead Road, then worked backwards through Exit 0 to Guitar Town. I have never understood the Standard Critical Wisdom that holds that Earle's first album is his best, with a steady decline to the nadir, the live album Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator. I like Copperhead Road. I like it that Earle sneaks them heavy metal licks in there. I was delighted to read an interview in which he confessed to being a closet AC/DC fan. I can understand how writers who looked up to Earle as a country Bruce Springsteen, the "hillbilly Boss," might not feel the same exact way, but still, the way critical attention has passed over Exit 0 in particular, puzzles me. The albums stands up easily to Guitar Town, and myself, I like it slightly better. It has more of my favorite songs on it -- "I Ain't Ever Satisfied," "Nowhere Road," "Good Ol' Boy (Getting Tough)," "Sweet Little '66," -- though when it comes right down to it, I'd be hard pressed to chose between the two.
Hell, I ain't gonna do it! Might was well try to choose between Train A Comin' and his new one, I Feel Alright. As he promised, this one is fully electric, loud, rocking, with drums and everything. The title track starts up and power chords hit you right smack dab between the ears -- announcing this is Steve Earle and this is how country rock is done -- and he blazes through two more knock 'em dead numbers, including the anthemic and autobiographical "Hardcore Troubadour," before settling down with a soft cheek-to-cheek slow dance, "Hurtin' Me, Hurtin' You."
That's another thing that's passed over in critical appraisals of Earle's music: his ability to fashion sterling country pop songs. If Earle had a sweeter voice -- and maybe if that cop hadn't ruined his larynx with that choke hold -- Earle might have given Marshall Crenshaw a run for his money in that department. I've always thought that "Promise You Anything" and "Hopeless Romantics" from The Hard Way could have been covered by Foster & Lloyd and Marshall Crenshaw, respectively. And "I Wait For You" from Copperhead Road should be sent back in time and handed to Phil Spector. In any case, his pop songs are badly neglected, and I don't imagine that "Hurtin' Me, Hurtin' You" will get a lot of critical ink expended on it. It's a fifties sock-hop song, really ("I Was The One" comes to mind), but a fifties sock-hop song written by Steve Earle. "You're Still Standing There," a duet with Lucinda Williams that closes the album, is another outstanding pop tune, this one with a bit of the Mersey Beat in it.
Maybe on his next album, he could do nothing but pop songs.
After "Hurtin'", the tempo speeds up again with "Now She's Gone" and "Poor Boy," a bluesy shuffle with rockabilly underpinnings -- an interesting facet of Earle's music is the way the rockabilly influence has been gradually subsumed but not left behind; over the years he seems to have taken rockabilly "cool" and mixed it down to a more gritty style and feel. But it's still there. If, say, Big Sandy & His Fly Rite boys covered "Poor Boy," they'd snap it right back to cool.
Earle pulls out one of his 3-hanky weepers, "Valentine's Day" (I'll just leave it to your imagination what Earle could do with a title like that) and then, BRAAAANG, it's back on your feet again with "The Unrepentant." "CCkmP" and "South Nashville Blues" touch base with the blues, another genre never far away from Earle's muse. The album's rounded out by the uptempo lovesick "She's Gone" and "Billy and Bonnie," the ballad of two hardluck characters.
Forgive me if I state the obvious, but the only difference between I Feel Al-
right and Train A Comin' is that one is acoustic and one is electric, and if
that makes a big difference in how you hear Steve Earle's music, you aren't
listening very hard. With these two albums he has proven a point that should
have been obvious long before now: Earle is as comfortable with rock as with
country, even if the critics or the purists are not. To anyone who's seen him
perform solo, standing alone on a stage and belting out an acoustic version of
"Copperhead Road" every bit as powerful as the fuel-injected album version,
Earle has certainly demonstrated his ability to move easily from rock to
country, from acoustic to electric. Listening to Train A Comin' and I Feel Al-
right back to back, I actually had the impulse to shuffle the songs together.
I suppose there will be people who are more comfortable with the drums and the
electric guitars on I Feel Alright, and there will be people who will always
think Train A Comin' is his best album because it's acoustic, meaning pure.
But for me it ain't nothin' but two sides, same coin.