When Steve Earle finished singing “Down the Road,” the last song on Guitar Town, Wednesday night (Feb. 6), he mused, “That was a trip.”
Earle had just made the journey again, moving down his self-made hillbilly highway at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium accompanied by most of the original session players who helped Guitar Town, his seminal 1986 album, come to life. Together they played the album start to finish, in sequence, the way Earle did on tour back in ’86.
Dressed in black — but in clothes that fit more loosely than the denim he wore back then -– Earle, by playing his songs, proved to the Ryman audience that Guitar Town deserves its reputation as one of the most important albums ever to come out of Nashville. MCA has re-released the disc, newly remastered and expanded, with Earle’s live peformance of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper.”
When the album came out first, Earle — 31 at the time — had been in Nashville for most of 12 years -– he arrived from Texas in 1974 -– trying to make a go as a songwriter and artist. He attracted attention –- and a record deal -– with a rockabilly-inspired sound, but a couple of Epic singles stalled in the lower reaches of the country chart.
Noel Fox, who ran the Oak Ridge Boys ’ Silverline-Goldline music publishing company, signed Earle to a publishing deal and kept singing his praises to MCA executive Tony Brown, who had been charged by his boss, Jimmy Bowen, with finding exciting new talent for the venerable label.
To get to know each other better, Earle and Brown went with Fox and songwriter Jimbeau Hinson (co-writer of “Hillbilly Highway” and “Down the Road”) on a songwriting retreat to Oak Ridge Boy William Lee Golden’s house on the Gulf Coast.
“On the way down there, in the van, drinking and everything else, I got to know Steve pretty well,” Brown recalls in a recent interview, “‘cause he talked a mile a minute back then, like he does now.”
Over the course of three or four days, Brown says, he was “seduced” by Earle’s writing and his strong personality. “At that moment, I was thinking this is the new Waylon Jennings , this is him, right here. That’s the first thing that entered my mind.”
Brown wanted badly to sign Earle to an MCA deal. Problem was, he was still under contract to CBS-owned Epic. Upon returning to Nashville, Earle planned to play his new songs for the label.
Brown feared the worst: “I said, ‘Don’t play these songs. They’ll re-sign you.’”
“He said, ‘No they won’t. They won’t get it. Trust me. They want me to be something else.’”
Earle was right. A day later, he called Brown to tell him he had played his songs for CBS, and the label had indeed dropped him. Brown couldn’t believe his luck. Bowen green-lighted the signing, on one condition.
Brown recalls: “He said, ‘I can’t understand a word he says. If you can cut a demo and make me understand what he’s saying, I’ll consider it.’”
In need of said demo, Earle, Brown and Guitar Townco-producer Emory Gordy Jr. went to the Oak Ridge Boys’ Hendersonville studio and cut “Good Ole Boy (Gettin’ Tough),” all the while urging a recalcitrant Earle to sing with more clarity.
Bowen heard the demo, gave his OK and Brown signed Earle.
(Soon after the signing, Bowen offered another stipulation -– Earle had to get his teeth fixed. Brown laughs at the memory and at the apprehension he felt about conveying the message to Earle. “I went and told Steve that, and Steve said, ‘Great. I’ve been wanting to get ‘em fixed anyway.’”)
At Earle’s concert Wednesday night, guitarist Richard Bennett stood to the singer’s right on the Ryman stage, playing the vintage guitars that gave Guitar Town its hip, Duane Eddy- and Bakersfield-inspired twang. “There would have been no Guitar Town,” Earle told the audience, “without Richard Bennett.”
Brown also credits Bennett with converting Earle’s musical offerings into something more fully realized. “A lot of those guitar lines were sort of lying in Steve’s acoustic guitar,” Brown says. “Richard picked up on ‘em and ran with ‘em. … He’s a musicologist, so he has analyzed everybody’s guitar sounds. He has the guitars and the amps, so if you want twang, he has the best twang in town.”
Wednesday night, before performing the hard-times anthem “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough),” a song he co-wrote with Bennett, Earle explained that an invitation to play the Grand Ole Opry probably never came his way during the Guitar Town era, “because they were afraid I was going to play this song.”
Later, introducing “Think It Over,” another song co-written with Bennett (“We were trying to make a Ricky Nelson record”) Earle said, “This is probably what we would have played had we been allowed to play the Opry at the time.”
Earle recalled that he was present at the births of both his sons –- Justin, 20, and Ian, 15 –- but, because he was touring constantly, saw neither boy take his first steps. To both he dedicated “Little Rock ‘n’ Roller,” in which a musician calls home from the road to speak to his young son.
After “Down the Road,” the last song on the album, Earle dismissed the Guitar Town band –- Bennett, John Jarvis (piano), Steve Nathan (keyboards), Glenn Worf (bass), Harry Stinson (drums and vocals), Gary Morse (steel guitar) and Mike McAdam (guitar and mandolin) –- to do several songs solo: “Tom Ames’ Prayer,” “Now She’s Gone,” “Valentine’s Day” and “Billy Austin.”
The band joined Earle again for a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers,” with Jarvis, Morse, Bennett and McAdam taking solos.
In the years since Guitar Town’s release, Earle has weathered a personal battle with drug addiction, done some jail time and become more politically active. Wednesday night’s concert was a benefit for the Park Center, a non-profit organization that helps adults with mental illness become “socially, personally and vocationally independent.”
Pronouncing himself glad that he “finally got to play these songs in this house,” Earle closed his Guitar Town concert with “Christmas in Washington,” “a song about heroes, my heroes.” He reminded the audience that “it is never, ever unpatriotic to question what your leaders do.”
Like the concert audience that gave Earle an enthusiastic standing ovation Wednesday night, Brown has great appreciation for what the singer-songwriter accomplished in 1986. Songs such as “My Old Friend the Blues, “Fearless Heart” and “Guitar Town” have stood the test of time. “They hold up today,” Brown says. “That’s one thing about this record. Of all the records I’ve ever done, this one holds up as good or better than anything, because the songs are there. They weren’t overproduced. They were just organic and real in every way.”