Welcome to Strangers Almanac, a twice-a-month column devoted to singer-songwriters. Here, co-columnist Katie Cook and I will write about some of our favorites—artists we’ve loved for years, and others we’ve only heard for a few months…and, of course, everything in between. We hope that you, the reader, can chime in and suggest your favorites, as well. Don’t be a stranger; we’re just an e-mail away.
I’m going to take you back a bit. Not back when Steve Earle was a guitar town hero in Nashville, hung up on heroin, behind bars, or even “just another country-rock artist.” I’m going to take you back when I first heard a Steve Earle song.
It’s a perfectly fine moment for me, the winter before I was to graduate college, wasting my days away, not knowing where I’d be living in a few months. All smiles, G.P.A down in a hole and just another number.
My introduction to Steve Earle’s music was not all smiles. It was about the death penalty. It came creeping out of my dusty Compaq computer speakers; the treble was probably too high, bass probably too low. I probably downloaded it off Napster. There, I said it. Sorry, Steve.
The song I’m referring to is “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song),” off of Earle’s wonderful Transcendental Blues. It’s a song about acceptance—right or wrong—that a human is about to die. But Earle doesn’t use the song to focus on his beliefs; instead, he gives a voice to the dead man walking, and we learn of every chilling last detail: wondering if the warden would mail his letters, his request to send his Bible home to Mom, how he hurt everyone he loved, how he hopes it will bring some peace. It made me think, even on the 26th or so repeated listen.
For Steve Earle, this is his game—he seeks out the subject and attacks it with his pen. In 2002, he was criticized for empathetically writing about John Walker Lindh (an American fighting for the Taliban); Earle was unapologetic, responding that he felt “urgently American” in writing the tune.
The first time I saw him live—a mere two months after I heard “Over Yonder”—I was struck by this unwavering confidence. Early in the show, a loud request was shouted out for the song, “Copperhead Road,” which drew a groan from the audience.
Earle chuckled, and calmly responded with: “I appreciate that. But, let me explain something, because it sounds like this is your first time at one of my shows. I pretty much play whatever the hell I want.”
Amid the cheers, there he was, smiling, live and in person, throwing caution to the slightest wind. As a singer-songwriter and performer, Steve Earle always does what he wants.
Tour dates: http://steveearle.com/tour/
Discography: Start with: Transcendental Blues (2000), El Corazon (1997), I Feel Alright (1996). Proceed with caution: Exit 0 (1987), The Hard Way (1990), The Mountain (1999). Classics: Guitar Town (1986), Copperhead Road (1990).
Steve Earle radio show: http://www.steveearle.net/radio/ (archives are downloadable as mp3s)
He said it: “I would stand in my cowboy boots on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and say that Townes Van Zandt is a better songwriter than Bob Dylan.” –Steve Earle, Austin American-Statesman (to which Van Zandt replied: “I don’t think Steve could do that. I’ve seen Dylan’s bodyguards.”)