ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MAY 8, 1987
By Steve Newton
When Steve Earle was 14 years old, he ran away from his home outside of San Antonio, Texas, and headed to Houston. All he had was an acoustic guitar and a head stuffed with dreams of making a living in music.
“I was real interested in folk music,” says Steve, “’cause I could duplicate those records. I couldn’t make my guitar sound like the Beatles no matter how hard I tried.”
Earle, who plays the 86 Street Music Hall next Thursday (May 14), started listening to records by Tom Rush, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin, and Dylan. Then he stumbled across songwriter Townes Van Zandt (“Poncho and Lefty”) in a Houston bar. The two became good friends, and Van Zandt started Earle on the road to being a serious musician.
That road led Steve to Nashville in 1974. A year later his biggest dream nearly came true when Elvis Presley was about to record one of Earle’s songs, a three-chord rockabilly tune called “Mustang Wine”.
But Elvis never showed up at the studio.
“I was heartbroken,” recalls Earle. “I was only about 20 when that happened. But in retrospect, it probably would have either damaged me severely–or killed me–if I’d made that much money at that point. I’ve grown up a lot since then.”
Steve Earle was–and still is–a huge fan of Elvis. His mother swears that the first song she ever heard Steve sing was “Blue Suede Shoes”. Earle used to sneak off and go see Elvis movies–“Even after they were bad,” he says–and he still exchanges presents with a close friend on Elvis’s birthday. The rocker was an enormous influence on Steve, not so much musically as performance-wise.
“Man, when you go back and look at the old Elvis performances, they’re amazing. He was so natural. For anyone who aspires to perform, he’s one of the people that you should definitely study. And by the same token, I think that everyone should see Springsteen, because he’s absolutely the best performer working right now. A lot of rock acts create this screen between them and the audience, but Springsteen has this sort of folk singer/coffeehouse-type contact with an audience–even in a huge room. And that’s hard to do”
Earle has been spending a lot of time honing his own live show. He played 130 dates touring in support of last year’s debut LP, Guitar Town. That record has since gone gold in Canada, and will soon do the same in the States. It garnered rave reviews and articles in Rolling Stone, USA Today, and Time magazine. (It was also among this scribbler’s top 10 LPs of 1986.)
“The critical response was so unanimous, and I was also real pleased with the way the commercial success grew real naturally and without a lot of hype on the label’s part. It was all done on the strength of legitimate press, rather than a lot of ads and that sort of thing.
“And the live show had a lot to do with it,” Earle says.
The music on Guitar Town sounds somewhat like a countrified John Cougar–it rocks, but with even more of a simple, down-home feel. The 2 1/2-minute title track was injected with a good dose of rockabilly, the sort of music that Earle recorded for Epic Records between 1982 and 1985, before hooking up with his current label, MCA.
Behind his band’s Duane Eddy-style guitar rumble, Steve sings about the restless ambition of someone in a small town, trying to beat the odds against making it big in the music business.
“Nothin’ ever happened ’round my hometown/And I ain’t the kind to just hang around/But I heard someone calllin’ my name one day/And I followed that voice down the lost highway/Everybody told me you can’t get far/On 37 dollars and a Jap guitar/Now I’m smokin’ into Texas with the hammer down/And a rockin’ little combo from the guitar town.”
On Steve Earle’s new album, Exit O, there aren’t any songs as immediately striking as “Guitar Town”, but after a few listens the same musical bite and lyrical integrity shows through. Earle’s songwriting approach was a little different this time around.
“I wanted it to be a little more songs about other people and less songs about me. It was appropriate on Guitar Town because it was my first album, but this one’s a litlte more regular-people oriented for the most part.”
The actual recording of the new album was different than that on Guitar Town as well. Earle and his band, the Dukes, could pretty much do what they wanted.
“We were more of a priority so we had a better studio, bigger room. Without having to use any electronic reinforcement I got a bigger drum sound and bigger acoustic guitar sound. Plus it’s the band coming right off of 80 dates and going in and recording. That makes a huge difference.”