Few modern songwriters invite cliches like Steve Earle does: He's the modern outlaw, the man on the run from the cops and his demons, the guy too country for rock and too rock for country. It's somehow fitting that Earle always gets described in such terms; his lyrics tend to embrace platitudes, from "I Ain't Ever Satisfied" to "Angry Young Man" to "I Feel Alright." But Earle's gift--along with that gritty voice and a seemingly bottomless well of interesting melodies--is for turning the trite into the believable, for making you forget that you've heard it all before, because now it's him saying it.
Which, of course, is the point, though that point has been missed time and again by Earle's producers and record labels: All too often, his naked sentiments have been dressed up in arrangements that substitute real feeling with slick, maddening competence. Listen to Earle perform "I Ain't Ever Satisfied" alone with an acoustic guitar, and you'll be positive he means every word; listen to the recorded version on 1987's Exit O, and you'll wonder if you accidentally put in a Bruce Hornsby CD.
The Hard Way, released in 1991, began a four-year period that found Earle in jail, rehab, and artistic purgatory, all of which only served to amplify his myth; when he returned with 1995's Train A Comin', he sounded broken. The mostly acoustic album, released on a tiny indie until Warner Bros. rereleased it last year, offered Earle a long-awaited chance to strip down his songs, to be his most direct, but the songs themselves were throwaways and half-assed new tunes and covers. The real comeback was '96's I Feel Alright, which reverted to pop-rock backing but contained his finest songwriting since '88's Copperhead Road. Last year's El Corazon wasn't quite as good--not as many A-list songs, and that whole "come back, Woody Guthrie" shtick was embarrassing. (Better to will than to beg, as Earle's longtime pal Townes Van Zandt proved time and again.) But even with its flaws, Corazon once again made clear that Earle is the finest country-related songwriter of the last two decades. His recent live performances have suffered little for all his travails: His voice and guitar are always mixed way up, so even on the songs on which he's backed by a full rock band, that omnipresent defiance remains front and center.
Steve Earle performs March 26 at the Gypsy Tea Room. Buddy & Julie Miller open.