Mon, Jul 1, 2013.
Steve Earle is returning to the province in August, on what has become pretty much an annual visit. Of course, he pretty much lives on the road, but such is the loyalty of the audience here that he's not sick of us, and we're sure not sick of him. New in the stores is a special boxed set that should excite a lot of fans. Called The Warner Bros. Years, it refers to the albums Earle made for after he was released from prison. Sentenced for drug possession, Earle then entered rehab, which he credits as saving his life.
He was still a risky property. He hadn't put out a record for four years, dropped because of his addiction. He hadn't even written a song during that time. He'd always been a Nashville outsider anyway, so it was going to be a fight, and few were betting on Earle.
Right away he got back to making music, sobriety having brought back his creativity. With little new material, his first album, Train A Comin', was largely made up of older songs that he'd written as far back as the mid-70's, or covers he'd been doing for years. Only there was a twist. Instead of his country-rock-twang sound that had taken him to fame with Copperhead Road, Earle went acoustic, roots, even bluegrass. Now, in today's Mumford/Avetts/Old Crow world, a mandolin is common, but in those days, nobody had gone roots, really. Alt-country was around but it was more pop or Burrito Brothers. The O Brother soundtrack was still year away, and bluegrass was fine but not cross-over. Yet here was Earle playing with the best, Peter Rowan, Norman Blake and Roy Huskey. Oh, and Emmylou Harris too, which was a big endorsement for the ex-con. I can remember well what a shock it was to hear a pure acoustic record, not just by Earle, but anyone. His version of The Beatles' I'm Looking Through You is still a thing of beauty.
Earle was soon back up to scratch in the writing department, quite proudly pointing out that the old adage about musicians needing the stimulants to create was garbage. Next he wanted to rock again, and put The Dukes back together for I Feel Alright, the title very much on purpose. While there were songs that took him back to his 80's sound, including the image-defining Hard-core Troubadour, there was a new maturity to his writing as well. Valentine's Day showed an emotional Earle, and South Nashville Blues explored the dark side of town that he had become all too familiar with in his drug days.
Then comes El Corazon from 1997, which sets the tone for his career since. Earle's rebirth was complete, now a musician with vision, both musically and lyrically. In Christmas In Washington, he drops in on Republicans toasting themselves, and prays for the return of Woody Guthrie. He had become political as well as empathetic, fearless in all things, opinionated and liberal. The music was wide open as well, Earle one of the earliest examples of what a modern roots artist would be, happy to sound old-fashioned at times, loud and exploring at others. It was a remarkable comeback, and a rare full redemption.
Instead of bonus tracks, this box features two extra discs of live concerts, one a CD and the other a DVD. The first is one of his comeback shows from '95 in Nashville, featuring the hot bluegrass pickers, and guest appearances by Emmylou and Bill Munroe. The band sounds great, he's is good voice and perhaps a little nervous, and all the old anger seems to be gone. The reinvention of Copperhead Road into a bluegrass piece is especially good. The DVD is an old MTV documentary-concert that saw Earle performing a show for inmates at a penitentiary in Tennessee. It's interspersed with Earle himself and several inmates doing serious time talking about how drugs ruined their lives. It's pretty effective really, it looked nasty in their. The Dukes do a rockin' show, and Earle doesn't pull punches either, playing Ellis Unit One, his song about death row in Texas from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack.
Steve Earle and the Dukes (and Duchesses) will be performing in Fredericton on August 10 at The Playhouse and in Moncton August 12 at Casino New Brunswick.
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Bob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).