Open the liner notes booklet to Steve Earle’s boxset The Warner Bros. Years – which covers roughly 1995-1997 – turn a couple pages and you meet a glossy, stylized photo of … David Simon, creator of the television shows The Wire and Treme. It’s odd, but it’s part of the set’s general slant: that the three albums Earle made during this period were made by someone who went through dark periods of his life and made it out a better person and better songwriter. Simon cast Earle as these sorts of characters in both of those TV shows, first as a recovering addict who serves as a mentor to an addict/police informant and then later as a freewheeling troubadour.
In his liner-notes essay, Simon tells his stories of meeting and casting Earle in a way that ties his perception of Earle the man together with his perception of Earle’s music and how it gained in scope and power in this period, when Earle dove headfirst back into music after jail and addiction treatment. “An act of resurrection,” Simon calls it, contrasting it with the life of Earle’s hero Townes Van Zandt, who “succumbed to the demons of his addictions.”
Song notes and album notes by Earle, and an interview with him, situate this music the same way, and tell a similarly powerful story of rebirth. Earle: “What I hope people take away from this period of my life is this: Don’t let anyone tell you there’s any correlation between being creative and being fucked up … I’ve done way more shit sober than I did fucked up.”
The impact and legacy of that f’d-up-ness is part of the content of the three studio albums – Train a Comin’, I Feel Alright and El Corazon – but not in a simple way. Train a Comin’, an energetic album driven by mandolin, dobro and acoustic guitar, begins with a train song that it’s hard not to hear – as in most train songs – as a metaphor, this time for addiction or other wrong paths we know we shouldn’t go down but can’t resist, though they “ain’t bound for nowhere.”
The album contains a lot of these smart rewrites of American roots music history and its relatives. So not just a Van Zandt cover (“Tecumseh Valley”, one of his most brutal sad songs), a song dedicated to Doc Watson, a duet with Emmylou Harris, a heartbreak song perfect for country jukeboxes (“Sometimes She Forgets”, a hit for Travis Tritt) and a couple folk narratives about outlaws and soldiers, but also a Beatles cover and a Jimmy Cliff cover, which are reminders of the healthy appetite American music has and pointers towards the more eclectic direction Earle would head a couple albums later.
To say this is an album of folk or traditional music would be to downplay the fire in it, and the brutal minimalism of something like “Goodbye”, a heartbreak song by someone who has abused his own memory: “Most Novembers I break down and cry / But I can’t remember if we said goodbye.”
Between that album and the next is when Live at the Polk Theater was recorded, in Nashville, with both Harris (on three songs) and Bill Monroe making appearances. The live set is mainly a reminder of how ragged and controlled Earle could be at the same time.
I Feel Alright, recorded in 1996, starts with some of that rough drive. The first song, “Feel Alright”, ends, “I’ve been to hell and now I’m back again.” The original album liner notes contain Earle’s brag that someone challenged him to make a record after serving time, “SO I MADE TWO.” The album does bear more of the mark of his experiences, and more of an overt F-U to doubters. There’s “CCKMP” (as in “Cocaine Can’t Kill My Pain”), a song about the snowball effect/freight train of addiction, another outlaw narrative, “Billy and Bonnie”, and “The Unrepentant”, an anthem for conquering your demons. And there’s “South Nashville Blues”, which Simon used in his show The Corner because, he writes, it was the song the recovering addicts he interviewed in Baltimore could most relate to.
The album also has moments that show off Earle’s sense for melody (“Hard-Core Troubadour”, “More Than I Can Do”) and again show his way with classic heartbreak material. There are a few songs here that could/should have been hits, for Earle or a more polished singer. The last song, “You’re Still Standin’ There”, manages to capture the deep yearning behind the searching-around in the darkness – “I’ve spent my life following things I can’t see / And just when I catch up to them / They slip away from me.”
The live DVD To Hell and Back comes next chronologically, and it was filmed at Cold Creek Correctional Facility – a fact not unrelated to Earle’s life story, as the MTV special tells us at the start that part of Earle’s probation dictated he would play a concert in a Tennessee prison. While this isn’t quite Johnny Cash at Folsom, it does allow for the voices of the prisoners along with that of Earle the survivor.
Earle talks up the value of trusting your heart over your head in his album note on 1997’s El Corazon, and it’s appropriate. The album is a pull-out-all-stops window into his way of thinking. He manages to muscle up his working-class folk songs into something more like Springsteen/Mellencamp/Petty, but with sharp historical, political and emotional storytelling, too. The album opens with a call for revolutionaries of the past – Woody Guthrie, Emma Goldman, Malcolm X – to rise from their graves and help us out. It ends with a gentle/sad blues that’s one of several songs fixated on place, on the loneliness of it. Places abound on El Corazon, and they don’t always have positive connotations. There’s a Supersuckers-backed punk song about the reality of NYC versus its glimmer and an old C&W-style song about the temptation of “The Other Side of Town”. The love songs (or heartbreak songs, really) get at the emotional connection between people and places. For example, “Somewhere out there in the world tonight / Just out of my reach / I hear your heartbeat.”
That song, “Somewhere Out There”, is lyrically a relative of “I Still Carry You Around” (a song with the Del McCoury band, ahead of their later album-length collaboration) and musically related to “If You Fall” and “Poison Lovers” in how they place Earle as an arena artist, as writing big anthems that put melodic strength behind his modernized versions of classic emotional material.
El Corazon is also a grand statement of not just survival but intention to do something now that he’s survived. He sings in “Here I Am”, “As for me / I got scars / For every mile I’ve traveled so far / And some blood on my hands / Here I am.” The album, and by relation the whole Warner Bros Years boxset, is a confident announcement not of return but of complete rejuvenation.