As he nears 60 years of age, Steve Earle is a bearded musical buddha. He's also most certainly one of the greatest living songwriters. His career hasn't been as lengthy as that of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Merle Haggard, but since he hit the scene in the mid-1980s with the massive country hit "Guitar Town," Earle began what can easily be argued as the best album-for-album body of work of any grizzled vet touring today.
The past decade has seen Earle go from hating on George W to loving the folkie life of a Greenwich Village-dweller to remembering his dear friend and hero Townes Van Zandt. His most recent works, however, haven't been exactly rich stories revolving around the people in the state he grew up in until his move to Music City in the mid 1970s. Sure, artists evolve, and his evolution has been a satisfying one, as his most recent album, The Low Highway, is a fantastic mix of roots, rock, storytelling and expert lyricism that's almost too predictable from him, though such predictability is welcome. With Earle bringing his band, the Dukes and Duchesses, to the Granada Theater for a show Saturday night, what better time than now to take a look back on Earle's best Tex-centric tunes.
"Fort Worth Blues"
Perhaps better than any other Earle tune, "Ft. Worth Blues," from the universally praised 1997 record El Corazon, is perhaps the strongest musical thread connecting him to the legendary names he knew and worshipped such as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. In fact, Guy Clark went on to record his own version on his superb 1999 album Cold Dog Soup.
From his 1995 record, Train a Comin', Earle digs deeper into his home turf than ever before, and perhaps ever since. He assumes the role of a Civil War infantryman who begins as a believer, and ends up as anything but. Beginning in the 1830's, McCulloch went from one of Davey Crockett's volunteers, to a Texas Ranger, only to become a Texas legislator and then to fight in the Civil War where he was killed in combat. Just one listen to the chorus and its clear to see the narrator was just fine with McCulloch's demise.
Also from El Corazon, Earle gives a stretch of Houston road the bouncing, juke-joint treatment. In this somewhat rare instance for an Earle-penned song, the lyrics themselves aren't the attention grabbers, as the legendary Gospel collective Fairfield Four singing behind Earle, breathing jubilant life into this song about the kind of good times that makes mothers worrisome. This tune gets double-points (whatever that may mean in this non-point-counting system) for the fact that Rodney Crowell also sang about this intriguing strip of Houston black-top.
"Home To Houston"
If this electric honky-tonk sawdust-kicker had been on one of Earle's first two albums, it would've likely seen commercial success to rival classics such as "Guitar Town." But by the time this song was included on Earle's Grammy-winning, Bush Administration-bashing The Revolution Starts Now in 2004, he was an Americana star, not a Top 40 stud. The rollicking, muscular tone of the song belies the stark fact that Earle's singing about a soldier practically resigned to not making it out of the desert alive.
"San Antonio Girl"
This organ-enriched tune from Earle's still-underappreciated sophomore effort, Exit O, is a fantastic example of pre-prison/pre-activism/pre-Greenwich Village Earle. With his voice full of uncontainable urgency, he's singing about a girl - not the death penalty, or about Condoleezza Rice - from the biggest city near Schertz, the smaller-than-small town he spent his childhood years in before moving to Nashville in 1974.
"Johnny Come Lately"
Since we're on the subject of where Earle spent his adolescence, the Texas-connection for this song isn't as strong as the others on this list, though the small role it plays lyrically is a significant one. Earle's military father was stationed in San Antonio, so it's tough to ignore it when Earle and the Pogues (who brilliantly lend the tune its signature Celtic country-folk sonic) sing "We'll be waiting at the station down in San Antone." This song's also a fine example of Earle's ability to master such a wide array of sounds, as this romping folk song is on his Copperhead Road album, in which the title track still ranks among Earle's hardest rocking moments.
"To Live Is to Fly"
While this Townes Van Zandt classic - widely considered to be in the top two or three of Van Zandt's lengthy catalogue - doesn't mention Texas, or have anything to do with Texas from a thematic standpoint, we'll always claim the Ft. Worth-born troubled genius as our own. Perhaps any song from Townes, Earle's Grammy-winning (Side Note: when reading about Earle's music, the term "Grammy Winning" will be prominent.) 2009 tribute album, could be on this list, but the quiet, fragile treatment given to this tune hardly fails to raise the hair on ones arms. Earle almost audibly channels Van Zandt as his vocals get a bit loose, resembling a man of tremendous sorrow late at night with another empty glass in his hand.
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From Earle's 1990 record, The Hard Way, the title character of this heart-breaking number's last name is Austin, and it's about a criminal type from our Red River mates Oklahoma. Oh, and it's a flat-out stunner of a song. While it's easy to trace Earle's anti-death penalty stance to this tune, this story of a young man choosing life's dark side is also storytelling at is stark, bleakest best.