In 1986, three new “country” artists shook the foundations of Nashville and took it by storm. Randy Travis made a name for himself with a style similar to the great genre forefathers while Dwight Yoakam went for a California hillbilly style with just as much success. The third musician, a veteran on the Music Row scene and a proven songwriter, recorded one of his personal best and a landmark roots rock album. While he may have eventually rubbed the country establishment the wrong way with his hellraising attitude and refusal to be pigeonholed, Steve Earle proved to critics and fans that, despite subsequent problems, he was in it for the long run. And one of the more productive runs in recent memory! Now repackaged with a bonus track and personal liner notes, Guitar Town sounds as fresh as it did in March 1986.
Starting off with the title track, which would hit the top spot on both the rock and country charts, Earle wastes little time describing the road and getting out of Small Town, Anywhere. While later editions of the album would replace the culturally sensitive phrase “Jap guitar” with “Jeep guitar”, the song stays true to its original form. Particularly interesting is how Bucky Baxter’s pedal steel guitar on the song should move it towards an authentic, old-time country and western groove. But it has the opposite, more appealing effect on the tune. “Goodbye’s All We Got Left to Say” is perhaps the most mainstream song here, and is probably the disc’s weakest song.
The troubadour quality to most of the album’s songs falls along the lines of Bruce Springsteen, who Earle states in the liner notes, after seeing him in concert, as being his “Eureka!” “Hillbilly Highway” has a distinct charm to it, almost bypassing the traditional country structure and heading into bluegrass territory as he would later do on several post-addiction and post-jail albums. “Down the Road” runs along similar roads, with its mandolin and three verses and no chorus blueprint. Earle’s twang comes to the fore here as well. “Think It Over” also has a ‘50s feeling to it; whether it’s the standup bass or the melody, it’s eerily similar to any Ricky Nelson hit. The Springsteen hue is also seen in the bridge of “Good Ol’ Boy” with its keyboards and slightly more uptempo delivery. The lyrics here also are very strong, especially when he sings, “I was born in the land of plenty now there ain’t enough”.
One of the most overlooked songs in Earle’s repertoire is the somber and peaceful bleak lullaby of “My Old Friend the Blues”. The curt manner of the singer’s writing is never more apparent, saying clearly in three brief verses what hundreds have tried to convey before and since in a convoluted manner. While some may be aware of the cover version by The Proclaimers, you can’t beat the original for its simplicity. But as pretty as that song may be, the highlight of the album is the often overlooked “Someday”, which never did much as a single but has all the qualities of a Rolling Stone track in their Gram Parsons influenced period, if listening closely. The guitar riff is as straightforward as anything Keith Richards ever did, not leading the track so much as moving things along.
As the album nears its conclusion, “Fearless Heart” is another oft-overlooked song but a regular staple of the musician’s exhausting live show. Paul Franklin’s pedal steel guitar work and Harry Stinson’s drumming add an important touch to the song’s framework, with Earle sounding as if he’s on the cusp of something unknown but quite good. The bonus track, a live cover of Springsteen’s “State Trooper”, stays true to the song’s meaning but moves in a much murkier and Delta blues manner. Previously available only on a British import collection and bootlegs (but they’re illegal, so we don’t buy those, do we?), the song is twice as long as the original, but just as intense in its own way.
On the whole, this album, along with Exit 0, stands alongside his best work. But it’s more important in that without this brilliant effort, none of the others would’ve been possible. A modern classic.