When Steve Earle first came along in the mid-1980s (although he’d been a jobbing songwriter for about a decade at that point), he was quickly co-opted into the ‘New Country’ camp, a grouping so loose it covered everything from folky guitar-strummer Nanci Griffith (I’ll fight anyone who argues that Gulf Coast Highway isn’t a marvellous song) to Dwight Yoakam (forget the big hats, and just enjoy Guitars, Cadillacs etc.).
His first album, Guitar Town, was country with rock flourishes, and lyrics that immediately had him described as the country Bruce Springsteen (they already had a ‘new Springsteen’, in John Cougar Mellencamp). It had at least one bona fide classic, in the form of My Old Friend The Blues, and some other great tracks such as Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left and Someday. The follow-up, Exit O, didn’t get such a good reception at the time, being perceived as playing up the Boss influence, but I think it’s actually pretty good. There are a couple of good Tex-Mex tracks – San Antonio Girl and I Love You Too Much – plus the understated No29 and the always enjoyable I Ain’t Ever Satisfied.
By album three, in 1988, Earle should have been hitting his stride, but the drug problems that have plagued him since were beginning to take their toll, so Copperhead Road is a game of two halves. Four of the first five tracks are superb, with a massive sound that just about makes the link between hard rock and country, but sadly, the rest is pretty much filler.
Still, the album’s just been re-released, and it’s worth having just for those four tracks. There’s Copperhead Road itself, a tale of a bootlegging, drug-dealing Vietnam vet that absolutely explodes when the drums kick in halfway through. There’s Snake Oil, a witty, honky-tonk piano-driven dissection of the Reagan years. There’s The Devil’s Right Hand, pure country with an anti-gun message. And there’s the wonderful Johnny Come Lately, with The Pogues adding their ramshackle magic to a song contrasting the lot of Vietnam vets with that of World War Two GIs.
There are some extra live tracks thrown in, but they’re nothing special. After this, Earle went down some very dark, strange paths, and they’re not always easy to listen to, but this is him at his best.