There was a period of time between 1998 and 2002 that i listened to a lot of Americana/Alt-Country music. I'm not "blaming" my friends but i was somehow influenced by my peers more than any other time in my life, concerning the music i listened to. Johnny & June were the figureheads. Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams were the King and Queen. Ryan Adams was the unruly Prince. Alejandro Escovedo was some related Duke. Emmylou Harris was an angel sent to remind us of the spirit of Gram Parsons, who conquered Country for the Rock kids and thus birthed the State of Americana.
Of course a lot of this influence was a great thing. Through them, i found a greater appreciation for Neil Young and The Rolling Stones. I discovered Faces and Moby Grape. I was forced to hear Wilco so many times, i actually started to like them. If it was no more than four chords, channeled Cash, Stones or Dylan and mixed well with beer, that's what was being played at the parties i went to. It's what people talked about. Those were the concerts everyone went to. And i was right there with them.
But after a while, all the newer bands started sounding alike to me. Son Volt, Drive-By Truckers, Jayhawks, Lucero, Bottle Rockets. All these bands that i appreciated on their own just became a big ball of unoriginality. We all know the classic Country themes. They were presented in the titles of a Johnny Cash box set and a series of Merle Haggard compilations. Together, you get the list "Love, God, Murder, Cheatin', Drinkin', Hurtin', Prison." Yep, that about covers it. The problem is that it's hard to come up with a new way to approach a song about Drinkin'. All of these themes have been touched on so many times for literally over a hundred years now. For me, the music became just as derivative and repetitive. If you exceed that 4-chord limit or started singing about wizards and shit, it's not longer Americana. It's a small box and most of the inhabitants have not found a way to sneak out and still keep one foot in.
It all became very boring for me. Soon, a lot of these artists that i had loved (and many that i still do love) just sort of fell to the side. I still don't listen much to Americana music. There was even a big Americana festival here this past weekend and i didn't even look to see who was playing. I think i just got burned out. There's a lot of music out there to listen to and this stuff doesn't scream for my attention the way it used to.
One of the reasons i enjoy writing this blog is that it makes me re-examine albums i've heard a million times. I know/think something is good but so often i've never really thought about why it's so good. I've listened to El Corazon about 10 times in the last week so i would know what to write about but more importantly because i have a new appreciation for Steve Earle that i never had before, even when i listened to him on a regular basis. Suddenly, he's screaming out for my attention again. What sets Earle apart from so many in the Americana/Alt-Country crowd became very evident to me last night while listening to a Lucero album. While so many artists, particularly younger artists, take their cues from the likes of Gram Parsons, Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown, Earle takes his from Woody Guthrie and more importantly, America.
His writing shows that "Americana" must actually represent the history of this country and its music. He understands from Guthrie the importance of telling a story. Sometimes it's for fun, sometimes it's to share an emotion and sometimes it's to kill fascists. And with the past in mind, Earle creates something very modern. El Corazon's opening song "Christmastime in Washington" relates the mood in the country in 1996 the way Guthrie related the mood of the country in 1940. He doesn't try to pretend he was in the Dustbowls, he just writes about where we are now. His call to Guthrie, Jesus & Martin Luther King to come help us out comes from the repressed reality that he and every listener are now the ones that have to set the world straight. I think this is one of the greatest bits of songwriting from the 20th century. I don't say that lightly. This is one for the history books.
For song #2, Earle does what every Americana artist does at one time or another. He pulls out the big gun, Emmylou Harris on harmony. With her help, he tells the story of a black boy who heads down to Taneytown, where his mother told him not to go. And he soon learns why vowing "I ain't goin' back there anymore." It's a dark rocker that sends chills down your spine. On "I Still Carry You Around," he solicits the help of the Del McCoury Band (which he would do further on their joint album The Mountain) in a legitimate nod to Bluegrass. "Somewhere Out There" and "Poison Lovers" cover the "Love" and "Hurtin'" themes in songs where you hear the harmonies even when they're not there. He closes it out with "Ft. Worth Blues," a sincere tribute to the travelling life and the love for home.
Steve Earle is a songwriter that will be remembered and re-discovered forever. He doesn't fake it, he lives it. He knows what songs are for.
These are dang fine albums too.
I Feel Alright
For the Nashville crowd, i'd like to propose an idea. Let's try to get The Traveling Wilburys to reunite. In place of the late Roy Orbison and George Harrison, i nominate Steve Earle and local perennial rock god Dave Cloud to take their place. With the new lineup, we'll create a Monkees type tv show where they live together. Dave Cloud will constantly sing "Lay Lady Lay" whenever Bob Dylan's in the room and wackiness ensues when he pees on Tom Petty's couch.