We Were So Much Younger Then, Steve Earle

Steve Earle stands onstage a little older. He's also a little wiser, a little bigger and his hair's a little thinner than when he released his seminal Guitar Town, a chronicle of the beautiful losers who exist just beyond the windshield's blur. But for all the passage of time, his heart remains the same: stout and fierce and willing to tilt against the windmills in the name of respect, passion, power and maybe, just maybe making ends meet without having to sweat the small stuff. In 1969, Tammy Wynette stood onstage at the Ryman Auditorium belting out "I Don't Wanna Play House" - and in the 3rd row of the Confederate Balcony, a kid from Houston sat mesmerized. He'd grow up to have a wild side, to filet moments with precision and pathos, to become the stuff of legend. But that night, he was stunned by a bouffant, a voice with a tear in it and a sense of how the best songs are ripped from lives and moments most would ignore. The child would never be the same. Steve Earle may never have qualified as a bona fide hillbilly star -- a little too rough, a little too quick to extend the middle digit -- even when his debut Guitar Town found quarter on Billboard's Country Album Chart. But he's got the heart of a cowboy, the soul of a biker and the poetry that stands him in good stead with Kristofferson, Cash, Willie and Waylon. An outlaw in what was then a land of back combed chest hair and quiana shirts, Steve Earle was one ole boy you couldn't tame, and theestablishment wasn't sure they'd want any part of it, either. Fifteen years ago, a young girl was played an advance cassette of this album called Guitar Town by an independent publicist looking to make that first turn-it-into-a-national-story connection. The music, lean, muscular, raw and honing in on the jagged fingernails of the blue collar, went straight to the gut -- and the tales were Hemingway-esque valor set against the lost souls of the West and Southeast: losers and drifters and dreamers and never quites mixed with might've beens. And the 31 year old with the shock of hair he'd flick out of his eyes by snapping his head back could tell a story, draw you in, hold you down, smother you with the too realness of it all. Steve Earle was a talker, a pirate, a rogue and a scammer who wanted you to know how it felt to be just beyond the fringe: not quite attached, but close enough to squint and see what was happening where you might wanna be. Steve Earle, simply, was a rebel that made the Music Row movers and shakers cringe. Coming to pick me up a few months before Guitar Town was to be released at a label not his own in a big black late model Caddy with an engine that rumbled like thunder in a wild, wild heart, the receptionist only had one thing to say: "Holly Gleason, Steve Earle is in the lobby, asking for you. Please come and remove him." He wasn't as bad as all that, confessing we should use his name at San Antonio Taco because "they like some of my songs -- and they'll put extra stuff on the tacos without us paying for it." He'd talk of the margins, the wishing, the lean years that were hardly over. And in his tales and his songs and the way he carried himself, he was an everyday hero -- someone who was about the same size as regular life, yearning for something more heroic, settling for getting by. Guitar Town was a masterwork. We knew it was good, but we didn't know that then… I fought to get him into Tower Pulse, where I was freelancing, in what would ultimately be his first national magazine story. There was so much to say; but it didn't occur to us to proclaim, "this is a record that will define a time." Earle likes to refer to it as "the great credibility scare of 86." And it was a time when it seemed the Dwight Yoakams, Patty Lovelesses, Randy Travises and Earles might could rule the world of country music. Lyle Lovett, kd lang, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kevin Welch and the O'Kanes followed shortly -- and George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, Reba McEntire and John Anderson fanned the mainstream flames as well. Well, the brushfire never caught, but Guitar Town stands. A monument to what might've been if a lot of things -- Music Row's stubborn embrace of the homogenized popcountry that radio understood, Earle's romance with heroin, a shifting musical landscape that left him stranded between genres -- were different, it captures the feelings that aren't defining, but set the tone for lives to be survived more than anything. And this night, when Earle took the stage at the Ryman Auditorium to reprise Guitar Town with a large chunk of the band that made it possible, it was a homecoming that never was. You see, Earle wasn't asked to play the Opry when Guitar Town was landing the air traffic controller's son and Townes Van Zandt accolyte in Rolling Stone and Newsweek and The New York Times. Like Hank, Sr., Steve Earle percolated trouble -- and trouble wasn't something they wanted any part of. So all that made this night all the sweeter… Funny thing about music, too, it melts time quicker than battery acid. Hit the notes, toss out the licks -- and everybody's right where they were back when. "Hey, pretty baby, are you ready for me? It's your good rockin daddy down from Tennessee…" With that opening proclamation, Steve Earle tore into a canon that swept up a handful of characters whose lives seemed to mirror our own. Maybe we weren't pumping gas three hours from anywhere, but we know the desolation and the remove that is a life of disconnection, the alienation of passions that don't quite match up with the world one inhabits. Offering the challenge of being armed with "37 dollars and a Jap guitar" -- originally excised to be "cheap guitar" for fear of offending -- "Guitar Town" offered the redemption of a Vitalis and Aqua Velva Romeo, putting the pedal to the metal to bring all 18 wheels of want home to the woman who could match his revved up desires with her own hunger for the wallpaper-scraping they both deserved. "Guitar Town"'s lurid description of a rambler with "A two pack habit and a motel tan" may've been the sexiest physical reality ever flexed in this pre-Mel Gibson realm -- and it holds even in the face of Brad Pitt, John Cusak and Russell Crowe But Guitar Town's lure wasn't merely libidos in a kudzu-like overdrive. "Good Ole Boy (Gettin' Tough)" painted a picture of the quicksand that traps those who make their living with their back and their hands. "I got a job, and it ain't nearly enough, a 20,000 dollar pick up truckBelongs to me and the bank and some funny talking man from I-ran Left the service, got a GI loan, I got married bought myself a home Now I hang around this one horse, do the best I can…"With those low slung swagger chords slicing through the oppressive truths and the backbeat pumping like pistons, it's an indictment in plain language of an all-cotton American Dream that's been put through the dryer enough too many times that it's way too tiny to cover Bubba's beer belly and five and dime dreams. "Good Ole Boy" should've been a defining moment for the Camaro, mullet, black t-shirt and Jim Beam set. Instead, it ended up the rallying cry of intellectual objectors, raging against the Yuppie norm… Just as "Good Ole Boy" was a snapshot of how it was, "Hillbilly Highway" traced three generations of rural diaspora -- Appalachians chasing work and dreams and the illusion of a better life. Acoustic guitar-driven, with a rockabilly-esque backbeat, Earle's wide open twang runs his finger down the family tree -- it's a phenomenon that is both inherent to the hollers and the poor parts of industrial cities. Defiant in its embrace of the process, "Hillbilly Highway" paints the unequivocal path of the only other option… not savory, but not much else either, a promise that really isn't. As the truth settles like a blanket to fend off the chill of reality, there's the intricate acoustic guitar part that falls like a street light's glow that sets the mood for "My Old Friend The Blues." Puddles of steel guitar pool around the chorus, a breaking, quaking recognition of those rare things that remain constant. This is the mournful celebration of the ache which remains no matter what else happens in the souls who lead these lives of unrecognized desperation -- sweating it out in the margins, watching the good life race past and the gaps between haves and nots deepen. So it is with Steve Earle, a man who paints lives in a few verses and a chorus -- and so much more is said between the lines that illuminates that which is too bleak to outright confess. His truth is even greater than the words themselves, like blood on ones hands that never quite gets washed away, some truths stain and define us without ever being spoken. "Fearless Heart" acknowledges the time served, the miles covered, the losses sustained in the name of love -- and even as it's a bruised and battered confession, it is a pledge of fidelity, of ardor, of the willingness to connect. This is a man who'll carry the burden, do whatever needs to be done -- and deliver the object of desire to the other side. If only you'll let go, if only you'll believe. A safe bet? Hardly and definitely. And that's what has always been the yin of Earle's yang. Sure he can be coy and innocent - '"Think It Over," a Ricky Nelsonesque plea with a retro feel to a girl who doesn't see what she's abandoning -- or tender and real life vulnerable -- the conflict of chasing the dream and missing the family that informs the phone call home to talk to his young son which is "Little Rock & Roller" - because they're all colors of the unacknowledged redneck/hillbilly emotional spectrum. To acknowledge the whole is what makes the chomping at the bit, the squinting at the less than promised seem more noble, less victimized. I have a friend who likes to refer to musicians of unprecedented skill, especially guitar players, as witches. Richard Bennett, who co-wrote some of the songs herein and anchored the Guitar Town sessions, is a witch of the first order. With an arsenal that includes an oversized hollow body Gretsch, a white Telecaster, a six-string bass, Bennett scrawls and etches tone and shape and feeling on Earle's Everyman psalms and ravers. Liquid in one place, bottomy in another, it is a muscular thing being done -- and Bennett provides much of the structure. Indeed, John Jarvis' grand piano flourishes, which range from roadhouse to glistening to tender, are the sparkling counterpoint to Bennett's barbed wire. It isn't a flavor one expects, but it elevates the truths to something elegant -- even the most redneck moments. Factor in drummer Harry Stinson's unflagging beat and close-formation harmony parts, and you've got one of those realities where the magic isn't merely chemical or an accident, but truly the result of something akin to the sum of well-chosen elements. By the time "Someday" rolls around -- the ode to a young man anywhere too far from somewhere, who knows there must be more -- this character could be an old friend. His eye on your car, his finger on the pump, he tells himself he can escape -- and believes it even as you disappear beyond the horizon. Sure his brother got out by virtue of athletic prowess, which is not an option here ("My brother went to college 'cause he played football/ But I'm still hanging 'round 'cuz I'm a little bit small") ; so one can only tell themselves the lies that will sustain them until it's too far beyond too late to even consider the mocking refrain of "what if?" "Good Bye's All We Got Left To Say" is a fitting rejoinder to those who would naysay, the faithless love who didn't have the heart to maintain, the reprise of what was an album far more important than any of us could have realized. It's a bitter whatever, but it's delivered from a place of detachment, of knowing Popeye was right in his retort "I yam what I yam" -- and back when, it fit the hotrod boy's secession from Music Row's reindeer games. Throughout the song cycle, Earle offered insights and stories that were both self-deprecating and historical. It was a poignant time for a dreamer who was getting his shot at the brass ring - and the hardcore troubadour had no trouble acknowledging it. With the band, which also included road dog guitarslinger Mike McAdam -- Earle's Sancho Panza in the best sense, synth wonder Steve Nathan, Paul Franklin's last minute substitute steeler Gary Morris and bass player Glen Worf, exiting the stage, the Grammy-winning songwriter and social agitator offered up several breath-taking acoustic moments. Balancing the desperately heartbroken pledge of eternity "Valentine's Day" to a woman who deserves so much more than a wellworn heart with the hair-raising first person portrait of a killer on his way to die "Billy Austin," which begs some powerful questions, Earle offered breadth with his depth and intimacy amongst what had been an overt celebration. For Nashville's movers and shakers were out in full force, littering the balcony, remembering a time when we were all so much more. Hope and dreams were the order once, the blind faith that we could create something new from the ashes of something great… The promise of Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam and all the rest never quite got home to roost. Sure Patty Loveless won her awards and had her hits and Mary Chapin Carpenter charmed with her chiming radio friendly concessions and NPR crossover. But the hardcore hillbilly promise never really managed lift-off. When the band returned to cap the evening's proceedings, it wasn't the dope-growers post-Viet Nam manifesto "Copperhead Road" they dug into. In keeping with the nostalgia that was more electric than much of the right now, Earle and company instead reprised the encore they embraced back when it was all happening -- the Rolling Stones' cautionary song of drug abuse and its aftermath "Dead Flowers." A lumbering hymn to love gone, drugs consumed, life spent and lost, "Dead Flowers" always celebrated the very tightrope that Earle walked throughout all of it. Indeed, it was a highwire of crossed needs that offered no refuge only the promise of a proper memorial when it all became too much. This evening, Earle shone triumphant. A champion of the forgotten, a fighter for unpopular causes, a working musician who tells stories that elevate those who are being captured in the lyric and those who hear the tales, it is that Everyloser who makes him compelling. Sitting with Lee Ann Womack, a client for whom that specification cheapens a friendship forged in music, the stakes and pay-offs became clear. Follow your heart, tell your truth -- the legacy will follow. For her "I Hope You Dance" was a moment, but she recognizes it's the body of work that will define her. Just like Steve Earle and Guitar Town. It set the tone for stories to come, characters to hold close, truths to acknowledge and lines to cross. If Nashville didn't cash the check the renegade writer wrote, on this one night, they had to think about what that nondeposit cost them -- and in a world where what wasn't never registers, that's a pretty strong truth to consider.
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