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The Unknown Music: Steve Earle ‘Guitar Town’

Combining emotion with edge and country twang with rock style, this record is an undiscovered gem worth digging up.

Tim Coffman

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It was a sad day a few weeks ago when I found out that my local record store in Towson, Maryland, was closing its doors. Since all the CDs in their inventory were now being sold at cheap prices, I ran down there and picked a few from every genre. While I was able to score some great records like High ‘n’ Dry by Def Leppard and 1999 by Prince, I took a second to look at the used CD section.

The album that caught my eye was Guitar Town by Steve Earle, entirely because of the cover and the title of the record. As a guitarist, I thought that this record would be full of inventive guitar pyrotechnics and maybe a few catchy melodies as well. I was met with something else entirely. Steve Earle’s Guitar Town is a rocker’s take on country music, which was much more evident after reevaluating the album cover. This album seems like a diary of a man paying his dues on the road night after night. The first thing that comes to mind when hearing this record is outlaw country, like that of Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson. While I had a cursory knowledge of country music prior to picking this record up, I had been out of practice for a long while. Despite this, Guitar Town’s overall sound and appeal made my ears automatically perk up.

The production on this record is extremely evident of the its time period. With the compressed drums and the extensive reverb on the guitars, you can tell that this is an 80s album. While this album has a production that is certainly interesting from a “retro” perspective, Earle’s persona really helps the songs shine through. While there is a rocker’s edge to his delivery, Earle does have that trademark southern drawl. The songs may be rockers, but this is unapologetically country at its core. 

The songs on Guitar Town are some of the best-written pieces that I have heard come out of the country genre. The title track serves as the album’s main theme, about a man and his buddies touring across the country and having a blast along the way. There are many songs that are pure country songs like “Goodbye’s All We Got Left” and “Hillbilly Highway,” //link to the songs// the latter of which sounds like a slowed-down version of some of Bob Dylan’s more up-tempo recordings like “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

The rock edge of this album is a great departure from the country tunes, with songs like “Getting Tough (Good Ol Boy),” featuring an instrumental that sounds like it could be a tune out of Tom Petty’s repertoire and “Think it Over,” which features a hook line that sounds like it could have been sung by Robin Zander of Cheap Trick. The best of these rockers is “Someday,” which is a pure Bruce Springsteen pastiche, with Earle paralleling the Boss’s songwriting with dreams to get out of his dead-end town and having a love for vintage cars.

The album’s greatest strength is when it slows down and really tugs at your heartstrings. Songs like “My Old Friend the Blues” is a track about how blues music will always be around for him at the worst of times, while “Little Rock n Roller” is an intimate song where Earle reconnects with his young son back home and owns up to the mistakes he’s made while being a parent on the road. The best written of these emotional powerhouses is “Fearless Heart,” which deals with going into a relationship without any apprehension. This culminates in what is probably my favorite lyric on the record: “I can’t promise this’ll work out right, but it would kill me darlin’ if we didn’t even try.”

I am pleasantly surprised by what I picked up from that record store. While the twang of this record may be a turn off for some, the songs on this record run the extra mile and show a different take on the heartland rock of Mellencamp, Springsteen, and Petty. Steve Earle is probably one of the best songwriters that you’ve never heard of and this undiscovered gem is more than worth digging up.

If you obsess over singers and bands, and are one of those people who make a playlist for every occasion, join CMN’s Music Journalism Course and get real-time experience, intense feedback on your writing, exposure to music industry insiders, and a great place to display build your portfolio. Get all the details on the Music Journalism Course here.

Tim picked up the guitar at 10 years old and never looked back. He has been writing about music since 2011 and has loved every single minute of it. Music is his MO every day and he will do whatever he can to make sure that he's involved with it every day of his life.

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