In the decade since releasing 1986’s landmark album Guitar Town, Steve Earle had fallen on severely hard times — drug addiction, divorce, jail time and persistent doubt from his peers that he had any music left in him. However, in 1996, he issued a comeback album that changed everything. I Feel Alright united him with producer Richard Dodd, a native of England, who demanded a strong work ethic from the songwriter.
As author David McGee writes in the new biography, Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet, “Though Dodd was responsible for only five tracks out of the 12 planned for the album, his take-charge approach and nonnegotiable demands he placed on the conduct of the sessions seemed to be exactly what Steve needed at this delicate point in his recovery.”
The following excerpt describes the necessary compromises and new, hard-hitting songs that brought the often-controversial performer back into the game.
[Excerpted from Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet by David McGee, © 2005, Backbeat Books]
At the time Jack Emerson and Dub Cornett [from Earle’s label, E-Squared] called Richard Dodd’s manager with an offer to produce Steve Earle, Dodd had never heard of Steve Earle. Told of the offer, Dodd weighed the two options he considers in cases when he doesn’t know an artist or an artist’s work: he could investigate both and make a decision based on the available information, or he could remain ignorant but intrigued and gauge his feelings in the course of a face-to-face meeting with the subject. With Steve, he chose the latter, “and that was a shock.”
“Oh, my God. He had just come out of prison. He looked dreadful. He was very large, with a huge growth growing out of one of his arms, left arm I think, about the size of a baseball. Teeth going every way, what teeth he had left. He sat across from me in the interview, I suppose is what it was; he interviewed me and I interviewed him. Both his legs were going at different times, shaking and everything, with a Diet Coke in his hand, saying how he was completely cured of drugs and in control of everything. He looked like an accident waiting to happen. I was desperate to get out of there; I didn’t want anything to do with him. I don’t like the drug thing, and I’m not that deeply rock ’n’ roll. I’ve been around it, I’ve just chosen not to be part of it. It was a relief when he said, ’Can I play you something?’ So I thought, Yeah, I can listen to some music and say I don’t like it or I’m not the right person, and then leave.”
After hearing some demos Steve had put on tape, Dodd was impressed almost to the point of speechlessness. But suspicious too, given Steve’s recent history.
“When did you record these demos?” he asked. “Are they 10 years ago when you were straight?”
“I did them just a little while back. Since I’ve been out,” Steve answered.
Then, Dodd says, “I kind of beat him up in a way. I’ll do that one, and I’ll do that one,” he told Steve, citing the songs that most grabbed his attention. “I’ll do that one if you let me do it the way I hear it. And I want to do another one because I thought you sounded like Elvis,” Dodd thinking this would be as close to producing Elvis as he ever got.
“Well, if you do those two, I’d like you to do these two as well,” Steve replied, then tried to wheedle a bit more out of Dodd, musing, “Maybe these three.”
Dodd resisted. “No, I’ll pick two, you pick two.”
“Okay.” Steve became quiet.
“And another thing,” Dodd demanded, “you’ve got to do it live.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve got to do it live in the studio.”
It was a protective measure on Dodd’s part. His experience with drug addicts was that “they get jacked up and you could spend days waiting for them to turn up for a session.” So he reiterated: “You have to be there with the band, you sing live, we cut it live. And that’s it. No fixes, you’ve gotta go for it.”
Steve didn’t hesitate. “Okay, I can do that.”
“Okay,” Dodd said, “let’s do this one first, and if that goes well, we’ll book the session and do everything.”
Dodd recalls, “So we did the one I was strongest to do, and that worked out pretty well; I enjoyed it a lot.” The one Dodd was “strongest to do” was the beautiful, aching love song “Valentine’s Day.”
It begins with a deliberate, stark finger-picked figure on acoustic guitar, and Steve entering strong but sorrowful, singing, “I come to you with empty hands,” apparently having forgotten Valentine’s Day and thus having only “my love” to offer. After the first verse the gospel quartet the Fairfield Four come rumbling in — and rumble they do, with low, resonating notes like rolling thunder; on the chorus, ascending with an elegant, upward glide, comes a string section, in an arrangement by Kris Wilkerson that brooks favorable comparison to the subtlety and understated beauty of a Nelson Riddle chart. In the song as it unfolds, Steve is apologizing for overlooking material manifestations of his love and offering instead something of more lasting value: “I hope my heart will do.” The strings, ever lovely, pour on the ache, and the Fairfield Four maintain their low, ominous, wordless hum until the end, when they join Steve in burnished four-part harmony that evokes the precision beauty of the Ink Spots on the words “Valentine’s Day” as the song eases to its close. To this point in Steve’s recording history there is no more beautiful moment than “Valentine’s Day,” even if him oozing sincerity about his motives doesn’t square with the record of his own love life. (“’Fearless Heart,'” Richard Bennett quips, “that pretty well tells the story of the Steve Earle school of romance.”)
The session developed according to Dodd’s timetable. He ruled the studio, brooking no ego trips from Steve or anyone else, and demanded punctuality, especially of Steve, of whom the producer was still wary. After outlining his idea for the arrangement, and getting Steve’s approval with “Okay, let’s try it,” Dodd met with Kris Wilkerson. She presented her interpretation of the arrangement he had described to her earlier, “and it was nothing like what I’d asked for, but that was my fault obviously in conveying what I wanted.” Dodd went through it again, and Wilkerson came back with a version he liked even better than what he had suggested before. Then he booked the Fairfield Four for a day’s work.
Then to Steve he laid down strict instructions: “Steve, at 11 o’clock you come in and we put guitar and voice down — the definitive guitar and voice. And ’round about 2 the singers will come in, and perhaps 5, the strings will come in. Then we’ll be done.”
Steve turned up at the appointed hour, but his performances were tepid. “We’d try a few takes, have a break, try a few takes, have a break.” The Fairfield Four came in as scheduled, and by 1:30 p.m. “Steve had an audience in the control room.” Which seemed to be the key, because after Dodd told him that the next take had to be a keeper “because I’ve got a lot of people invested in this day,” he nailed it on the next go-’round.
The Fairfield Four then listened as Dodd explained what he wanted them to do on the track, “and they did their thing; took awhile.”
Seems there was some communication problem between Dodd and the Fairfield singers. Their musical director, though, understood what Dodd wanted, “which is just as well, because I couldn’t understand a word they said. They were lovely. They were suspicious of this little English white boy telling them what to do. I must admit, at the time mentally I ’settled’ for what they gave me as their interpretation of what I asked for. I later found out that they knew better. I thought they were just ignoring exactly what I wanted and doing what they could do, but they were doing what they do do, which was the right thing. So cheers to them.”
As for the use of strings on “Valentine’s Day,” Dodd found Steve totally amenable to the idea, “a complete pussycat,” in fact. “He was nothing like what he is now,” Dodd says. “He was desperate for someone to take him serious again, I think. So I had my way with it, really.”
“Valentine’s Day” went down so well that Steve and Dodd moved on to the band tracks — “and I said, ’No overdubs, Steve'” — and those went smoothly too, to the point where an enthusiastic Steve Earle suggested, once again but this time more successfully, that they do a fifth song together. In three days they had completed all the work on the four remaining Richard Dodd–produced cuts that would appear on the succeeding album, I Feel Alright, a telling title if ever there was one. Steve even allowed Dodd to select the band to accompany him, there no longer being a formal [lineup of Earle’s band, the Dukes]. He brought Greg Morrow in on drums, Richard Bennett (a favorite of Dodd’s) had already been enlisted as a guitarist, Roy Huskey Jr., returned on bass for “Poor Boy,” but otherwise that slot was filled by the E Street Band’s Garry Tallent, now a Nashville resident.
Of those songs — “Hard-Core Troubadour,” “More Than I Can Do,” “Hurtin’ Me, Hurtin’ You” and “Poor Boy” — the only one that was a bit of a struggle was the turgid, moody “Hurtin’ Me, Hurtin’ You,” a recycling of an oft-told tale in Steve’s canon, him screwing up (and screwing around), explaining that it wasn’t intentional (“I never meant to be cruel and untrue”), and coming to some level of self-realization in the aftermath of his duplicity (see title sentiment). As the song develops, Bennett interjects snippets of twangy pull-off notes, hits a hard chord in the chorus, settles into the background again with minimal comment, until the song starts building to an angry pitch in the final verse. Then, Bennett’s guitar starts wailing like a saxophone — indeed, it even has a sax tone — and takes the music roaring into the final, halting chorus in which Steve, sounding exhausted and breathless, affects the aural equivalent of crawling across the finish line.
“That was a long overdub,” Dodd recalls, “by virtue of what I asked Richard to do. He was up for it, but it took an hour.”
As he did on Train a Comin’, Steve used the first three songs of I Feel Alright as a personal state of the union message, celebrating his return from the depths and reasserting his strengths as a craftsman. On the album opening “Feel Alright,” against a background of jangly and processed guitar sounds (a Ray Kennedy touch that Dodd believes is his influence — “Listening to things Ray had done prior to our meeting and things he has done since, I think the use of the compressor — or the overuse of the compressor — might be my fault”), Steve fairly wallows in rubbing his survival in his detractors’ faces (“find a place to hide away and hope that I’ll just go away — ha!”) in a performance that underscores the quiet confidence he had gained by the time he started working on the Ray Kennedy–and Richard Bennett–produced tracks. “Hard-Core Troubadour,” with its edgy, vaguely south-of-the-border flavor and an arrangement and melody inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s classic “Rosalita” (from which Steve even lifts a lyric near the end) both announces his resurrection and pokes fun at his slacker ways (“He’d come to make love on your satin sheets/Wake up on your living room floor”). It is a pure, triumphant, semi-autobiographical romp fueled by Bennett’s rich, jangly guitar (he even tosses in a twangy quote from “Guitar Town” to close the track) and Steve’s life-affirming performance. An appeal to an old lover he can’t forget, “More Than I Can Do” takes off on stomping mid-tempo rhythm, insistently strummed acoustic guitar, and a wailing harmonica. Steve details all the reasons he’s not giving up on the love affair, a background chorus adds soaring harmonies, and the story’s climax reiterates the narrator’s unstinting focus on reclaiming his lost love, closing out the trifecta of songs on the same positive, upbeat note at which it began, minus the gleeful revenge factor of “Feel Alright.” The amiable “Poor Boy” is a bopping little neo-rockabilly tale with a class sensibility about it, as Steve sings of a boy from the other side of the tracks falling for a girl from “up there.” Undeterred, he holds out hope he might become her chauffeur, if only for a chance to adore her blue eyes in the rearview mirror.
The remaining tracks introduced Ray Kennedy to the Steve Earle story. He came in essentially with Richard Bennett, unbeknownst to Richard at the outset. Richard had arrived home one afternoon to news from his wife that Steve had called. Upon returning the call, Richard learned that Steve wanted him to produce his new studio album, the one he would record after he finished mixing a new acoustic album he had recorded. Initially reticent even about returning the call, fearing Steve might still be a junkie, Bennett found him quite the opposite: “He sounded pretty damn good.” Steve dropped off a cassette of some of the songs he had written, and after hearing them Bennett was excited again. He agreed to join the project, but only after making it clear that he was to be the producer, period, no co- stuff. “I had really quit co-producing with people,” Bennett explains. “I just wasn’t interested, for a number of reasons. I had a certain way I liked to do things. I was just headstrong enough at that time that I didn’t feel I needed to compromise anymore.”
Next time he spoke to Steve, he was told Ray Kennedy had to be given a co-producer credit because the sessions in part were being held at Ray’s Room and Board studio (the Richard Dodd tracks were recorded at Treasure Isle). Still, Richard loved Steve’s music, so he accepted the coproducer credit and went to work.
More than anything else, Richard was heartened by the changes he saw in Steve, who had gone from being “very dark” when last he had worked with him (on Exit 0) to “being the ol’ Steve again.” In the studio, it was like the old days, the good times, “very loose — we’d all become looser about things. You know, he wanted a little more than Exit 0 or Guitar Town, and we wanted to leave some loose threads laying around. And of course at that point it was just given that he was playing guitar — which was perfectly fine. My job was to find something to complement or to add to what Steve was doing. It was a lot of laughs, a lot of fun. There was never a tense moment that I remember. It was really a little bit of a homecoming. It was nice to go back and do it.”
The ultimate team player, Bennett gave Kennedy great latitude as a coproducer — the seven tracks bearing their credit often have sonic touches that have since become a signature of Steve’s albums, which are also co-produced, but by Steve and Ray. As Bennett asserts, I Feel Alright really is the comeback album, for it’s here that the groundwork is laid for everything that followed.