In February, I braved the frozen tundra of Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood to see Steve Earle in the intimate confines of the upstairs room at Johnny Brenda’s. I’ve been a fan of Earle’s for a long time and will happily, openly disagree with George Jones fans about who the “greatest living country singer” is, but seeing him in a small space, without a band and armed only with a guitar, a mandolin voice has only deepened my appreciation for him.
Earle isn’t really a household name, so to introduce him to fresh ears and draw any fans out in the comments, here’s a very subjective and biased “best of” selection. (If I didn’t include your favorite, don’t just whine about it. Put a link to the video in a comment!)
Probably Earle’s most well known song, “Copperhead Road” is also a good introduction to his style overall. Scotch-Irish musical elements? Check. Country and hard rock mashed together? Check. Story about outlaws and down-on-their-luck types? Check. References to the Vietnam War? Check.
The title track from Earle’s debut album hews a little closer to a traditional country sound than some of his later work, but still hints at his melting pot of influences and styles enough that on his first tour to support the album he found himself sharing a bill with Dwight Yoakam one night and the Replacements on another.
Fort Worth Blues
When Earle was a teenager getting his start in Houston’s music scene, he met Townes Van Zandt. The cult country singer became a close friend, mentor and inspiration to Earle. Van Zandt died just a few days before Earle went on a European tour. When Earle got to Galway, Ireland, he wrote this song in tribute to his friend.
I Feel Alright
Earle released the album I Feel Alright soon after he got out of prison (the second of two “comeback” albums in a span of 18 months), and the title track has all the swagger of a man who can’t be beaten down.
The Devil’s Right Hand
Let’s switch it up and do a cover! While I like Earle’s original and Johnny Cash’s Unearthed version better than the Highwaymen’s take, I believe the respect of one’s peers is an important thing for an artist and I can think of few compliments bigger than having these four legends cover one of your tunes.
Earle is part of a long line of political musicians who sometimes use their songs as weapons in the war of ideas. Here, he takes things very literally and looks forward to the day when he doesn’t have to swing his “hammer” around and sing any more angry songs. I hope he’s not holding his breath.
The Galway Girl
Finally, here’s Earle as I saw him (I didn’t shoot the video), going to town on that mandolin and lamenting the blue-eyed, black-haired girl that got away.