STEVE EARLE – GUITAR TOWN
Released March 5, 1986 – 30 years ago
Earle’s solo debut, straddling country and rock before terms like alt.country and Americana were coined, is equal parts outlaw country, folk, and Springsteen-styled rock ‘n’ roll. Confident with near flawless songwriting, it stands as one of the Earle’s best, and arguably is one of the best roots releases of the 1980s.
The Classic Pick is a weekly feature at 4pm M-F on The Home Stretch, sponsored by the Good Oak Bar and curated by Kris Kerry. Each Monday at 4pm Kris stops by KXCI’s studio to give us insight on this classic album at 91.3FM and kxci.org.
Steve Earle grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and began playing guitar at 11 years old. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee, when he was 19, and worked blue collar jobs by day and played music at night. Soon he found himself playing guitar for Guy Clark, and was his guitar player on Clark’s 1975 album, Old No. 1.
Earle returned to Texas for a while in 1980, where he formed the band The Dukes, who still back him from time to time, but soon found himself back in Nashville. There he found himself working as a songwriter for well-connected publishers, where several of his songs were recorded by main-stream country artists, including Connie Smith, Johnny Lee, and Carl Perkins.
In 1982, Earle released an EP with the Dukes, called Pink & Black. It received little attention.
His tenure as a songwriter let to a recording deal with MCA Records 1985, and Guitar Town was his first of three recording on the label.
Guitar Town was a big success, spawning four country singles: “Hillbilly Highway,” “Someday,” “Goodbye’s All We Got Left,” and “Guitar Town,” which topped out at #7 on the country single chart and was also a main-stream single. The album also topped the Billboard country album charts at #1 and broke into the Billboard top 200.
Guitar Town was recorded in late 1985 and January of 1986 at Sound Stage Studio in Nashville. Sound Stage Studio is one of Nashville’s most prestigious studios, and is home to over 500 country #1 hits. Virtually anybody in country music from the last 30 years has recorded here at one time or another.
Production credit goes to well-known country producers Emory Gordy, Jr. and Tony Brown. Gordy worked with Alabama, George Jones, Bill Monroe, Vince Gill, and his future wife, Patty Loveless. Brown did production work for Reba McEntire, Lyle Lovett, Trisha Yearwood, Marty Stuart, George Strait, and The Mavericks among others.
Emory Gordy, Jr. also played bass on Guitar Town, and is also a sometimes member of the touring Dukes line-up. He has also played bass, both as a touring and/or recording musician, for Neil Diamond, Elvis Presley, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, John Denver, and Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris (on Grievous Angel, which was featured as a KXCI “Classic Pick” a few weeks ago).
Guitar Town has the distinction of being one of the first country albums to be recorded digitally – a new technology in 1986.
Still highly regarded, Guitar Town was included on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of “500 greatest albums of all time,” and in 2006 it was ranked 27th on CMT’s “40 greatest albums in country music.”
Steve Earle has always been a big fan of singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. He reportedly ran away from home when he was 14 to follow Van Zandt’s tour around Texas. His son, Justin Townes Earle, is named after Townes Van Zandt. He is quoted as saying, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”
Earle remains one of country/roots music’s most esteemed songwriters. He has co-written, recorded and/or performed with a number of well-known artists, incuding: The Pogues, Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, Warren Zevon, Emmylou Harris, Allison Moorer, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, Sheryl Crow, Indigo Girls, Alejandro Escovedo, Iris DeMent, Jason & The Scorchers, and The Supersuckers among others.
Earle has led a very “country” life-style. He has been married seven times and divorced six times, twice to the same woman. He is currently married to Allison Moorer. In 1993 he was arrested for heroine and cocaine possession and ended up serving 60 days of a year sentence. Afterward, he completed an outpatient drug treatment and has been clean since.
Earle’s music has appeared in over 50 movies and television shows, including: Brokeback Mountain, Friday Night Lights, and HBO’s True Detective, True Blood, Six Feet Under, and The Wire.
Earle also has a secondary career as an actor, most notably as a recovering addict and AA sponsor in The Wire.
Earle has not been inducted to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame or Country Hall of Fame.