ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MARCH 21, 1996
By Steve Newton
If you’ve been wondering whatever happened to Steve Earle, join the club. Since his The Hard Way album of 1990, he’s been pretty well out of the musical picture—mainly because he was in jail for heroin possession. His run-ins with the law combined with rumours of drug addiction to conjure fears that the renegade country rocker was oblivion-bound, but then just last year he returned with the bluegrass-steeped Train A Comin’ disc. Few people heard that one—and not many bought it—but all that should change with Earle’s new CD, a venturesome and tuneful offering on a par with his breakthrough ’88 release, Copperhead Road.
“I’ve been to hell and now I’m back again,” sings Earle in the ho-hum opener, “Feel Alright”, but it isn’t until the freewheeling strains of the next number, “Hard-Core Troubadour”, that the true weight of his return is evident. He follows that track with another surefire winner, “More Than I Can Do”, more evidence that Earle’s time in the can didn’t tarnish his ability to meld crafty arrangements and poignant lyrics.
I Feel Alright is Earle’s most diverse collection of tunes, with his trademark hillbilly vibe rooting into the realms of ragtime, honky-tonk, bouncy country-folk, testifyin’ blues, heartbreakin’ ballads, and—as in “Billy and Bonnie”—returning to “Copperhead Road”–style white-trash storytelling.
The finest track is saved for last, as vocal goddess Lucinda Williams duets with Earle on “You’re Still Standin’ There”, a jangly, uplifting number reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” and sporting some Dylanish harmonica courtesy of Earle himself, who, I’ll bet, learned how to blow while booked into the Crowbar Hotel.
Beats making licence plates.