Here’s the problem with having a mega hit that sticks around on commercial radio for decades; If you don’t back it up with more hits in the same stratosphere, you’re gonna get written off by a lot people as being a one hit wonder. Copper Head Road is one of those songs that had been forced down my throat so many times in my younger years, that by the time I was starting to form my own opinions and musical tastes, I was over it. It could be a great song, but I have lost all perspective and never need to hear it again.
That meant that the song’s perpetrator, Steve Earle, was also dismissed for a long, long time. Then I watched the amazing HBO show Treme. In a series following the lives of a lot of actors playing musicians, while squeezing in plenty of cameos of real musicians playing themselves, Earle stood out in between. He was a respected, real world musician, playing a fictional character. Though he rarely performed songs on the show, he came with an undeniable gravitas of a real artist who’s been through it all, and lived to tell the tales through his songs. So I thought if I can get so on board with a fictional version of Earle, why not give the real thing a go too. Which I did, with his debut, Guitar Town.
There are certain kinds of stories that can only be told, certain kinds of lyrics that can only be sung, with a southern drawl. With a country twang smothering the music and Earle’s vocals, song titles like Goodbye’s All We got Left, Hillbilly Highway and Good Ol’ Boy (Getting’ Tough), what could be corny clichés, immediately have a road worn legitimacy that just works.
And it doesn’t just work when Earle’s kicking ass and taking names either. Guitar Town is great when it’s rocking out on Good Ol’ Boy, but it’s just as good when he gets a little tender and reflective on something like My Old Friend the Blues. It’s as melancholic as the title sounds, and the title may seem a little on the nose, but you can’t deny Earle’s sincerity.
The almost yodelling on Think It Over is another great example of steering into the skid. In the wrong hands, it could sound like someone making fun of the worst elements of country music. Amidst the rest of Guitar Town, it feels earned and real.
It’s that feeling of earned realness that I am becoming more and more aware of in the country music I like. I think it’s because it gives me a vicarious feeling of being one of this down south, good ol’ boy shit kickers. Listening to these albums, who wouldn’t want to tearin’ it up on stage like Waylon Jennings or the Drive-By Truckers?