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Steve Earle has been in my consciousness since I was a teenager. I had a subscription to Rolling Stone (a 13th birthday gift from Mom's best friend--thanks Jana) and he was a country renegade, not an outlaw like Johnny Cash, but a renegade. As an aside, the journalist who coined the term "outlaw country" originally wanted to call it "renegade country" until she looked up the meaning of renegade. She didn't think it fit for the Nelson/Jennings/Coulter vibe, but it totally fits for Steve Earle: a person who deserts and betrays an organization, country, or set of principles." Steve Earle actively tried to reject his country allegiances, and made an album, Copperhead Road, which he considered "for me . . . a heavy metal record." It's not remotely metal, but it shows a clear attempt to do something that rejected his folk/country roots. He didn't manage the rejection he hoped for, but he achieved a certain caché for trying. Anyway, I had this picture of Steve Earle that I cut out of Rolling Stone just because I liked the look of it, and I put it on one of my walls-of-pictures.

I didn't get those Steve Earle first couple of records. They had a style that journalists called "power twang," that basically amplified the redneckness to almost cartoon levels. The first time I went to the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, Steve was headlining, and I didn't bother to stay for his set and went home early to avoid driving in the middle of the night. I overheard someone saying "He plays half the time and the other half is him ranting about politics." I wasn't into politics at the time (though I was already an obsessive voter), and just didn't think it was worth staying. I have regretted it since.

I have since learned a lot about Steve Earle, largely due to my interest in the guys who were his mentors. Townes Van Zandt is country music's poet laureate, an impossibly deep, thoughtful songwriter. Steve found Townes when he was a rebellious teenager and immediately latched onto him. He loved Townes not just for his songwriting, but for his hard-drinking, drug-addled, rebellious spirit. He tells the story of how he was at a gig, and Townes showed up, three sheets to the wind. Townes kept shouting out "Play Wabash Cannonball!" between every song. Steve eventually admitted that he did not know the song, and Townes yelled "How can you call yourself a folk singer if you don't know Wabash Cannonball?" In response, Steve played one of Townes's songs, Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold. It's a song with a million words, one that at the time only two people besides Townes had learned--Steve himself, and Rex Bell (subject of Rex's Blues), a local bassist and club owner. Townes was apparently impressed and shut up after that.

Later, Steve moved to Nashville to be a songwriter (he was still a teenager) and hooked up with Townes's best friend, Guy Clark. Guy was a sort of mythic Nashville figure, along with his wife Susannah, and their house had become something of a salon for young songwriters. Guy would take people in and teach them how to write songs. Townes was always a pretty vague mentor, with advice like "go read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, and rewrite this song after you've finished it." Guy was much more concrete, and would offer actual advice about how to make the songs into masterpieces.

As far as I'm concerned, Guy Clark is the coolest motherfucker alive. He has been writing and honing his crafts--as a songwriter and a luthier--for over 40 years. I got into Guy and Townes around the same time, and was struck by their differences in songwriting. For literary comparison, Guy is more like Steinbeck and Hemmingway, whereas Townes is more like Faulkner meets Pynchon. Guy's songwriting in particular stood out to me for his storytelling and ability to use simple verses to convey huge emotions.

I learned, later, that Steve had been one of Guy Clark's first proteges. Before I knew this, I had sort of imagined that Guy would not have approved of Steve, seeing him as part of the dark side of Townes Van Zandt's image. Nothing could be further from the truth. Steve moved to Nashville and Guy totally took him in, letting him play bass in his band and encouraging him as a songwriter. Everybody wanted to write a song that Guy liked, and Steve wrote one that Guy thought was one of the best he'd ever heard. In the documentary Heartworn Highways, you hear Guy telling everyone at his party to shut up and listen to this song and quizzing his guests whether they listened to the verses.

Steve took up as a songwriter, making a few bucks a week in hopes of getting to make a record. This happened occasionally--Guy got to make records--but it didn't happen for Steve. His first album, Guitar Town, came out over a decade later. The followup, the aforementioned Copperhead Road, got him some traction as a "renegade country" artist. But he was pretty deep into drugs by that time, and spent a few years in a dark period of booze and heroin, unable or uninterested in making more records. He came home one time to find Townes Van Zandt sitting in his living room, demanding to know whether he was using clean needles every time. Assured that this was the case, a very drunk Townes said "let me play you a song I just wrote" and played an early version of Marie.

Steve eventually got sober and found himself wanting to record a new album. That album, 1995's Train a Comin', included many of the songs Steve wrote in the 70s when he was hanging out with Guy Clark, like Mercenary Song, Tom Ames' Prayer, and Ben McCullough. Only a few songs on that album were new. One of those was his masterpiece Goodbye. The first song he wrote after getting sober, it's a song about losing a loved one during his strung-out days, which he has often called "the ninth step in the key of C." Emmylou Harris, an old friend of the gang, was immediately blown away, and did her own version, and often joined Steve in concert on the song.

I love everything about this song. The studio version is probably my favorite recording of it, in concert it's never as intimate and heart-wrenching as it should be. It's a song for a dark room, just you and your ghosts. The seemingly simple yet delicate fingerpicking seems to flow out of his fingers straight from his soul. Playing it on guitar, you cannot help but follow Steve into the place of loss and desperation to apologize.

I consider Train a Comin' Steve Earle's best album. I am glad he finally decided to record those songs he wrote in the 70s, and that he did so at a time when he really felt he had something to prove to the world. If he had haphazardly cut them when he was back on top, they wouldn't have the same fierceness with which they were originally written. Really, it's a shame he didn't get the opportunity to record them when they were fresh, but by the time he got an album deal, he'd been shopping those songs for a decade and didn't think they were worthwhile. Overall, the whole album is fantastic, it's a reaffirmation of where he came from with the older songs, but also a strong sense of rebirth and new direction. His cover of "I'm Looking Through You" is always a bit odd for me, but I didn't grow up with the Beatles. His cover of reggae classic Rivers of Babylon is also a bit odd on the album, but if you listen to the version (witn Emmylou Harris) on Live in Nashville 1995 (not on youtube, but on spotify), it's moving, a moment of realizing he wasn't living right and weeping when he remembered how life could be.

EDIT: For anyone interested, I strongly recommend Townes Van Zandt's Live at the Old Quarter as a starting point for Townes's work. It's just him and a guitar, and avoids some of the production conceits of his studio records. It also reflects his personality better than his studio albums. It shows his ability to go from lighthearted humor to darker songs in an instant, showing both aspects of his personality. You get the impression that as a person Townes was charming, affable, funny. But he definitely has a depth and darkness, and he realized that he needed to intersperse the humor to keep the audience from getting depressed. It's a great listen.
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