If there’s one figure in country music that epitomizes the true ethos of the genre, it’s Steve Earle. While other singers water down the genre to suit their marketing plan or contrive a hokey image to seem credible, Earle has lived the life—and probably wishes he hadn’t. For every success he has experienced, Earle has suffered an equal amount of trouble, and most of it has been self-inflicted: heroin addiction, blown record deals, brawls, legal woes, incarceration, divorces… As the saying goes, you couldn’t make this shit up, and if you could, you wouldn’t want to actually subject somebody to it. All of these dramas and traumas, though, have only made Earle’s music that much more personal and real. He may have blown his chance at mainstream success long ago, but he has constructed something much greater in the process—a legacy.
Interestingly, as The Definitive Collection: 1983-1997 shows, Earle tried his best to play by the rules early in his career, but couldn’t be anything other than himself. When Earle began his career in the early ‘80s, he was immediately lumped into the New Traditionalist subgenre, a movement (of sorts) that sought to bring country back to its roots. Along with Dwight Yoakam, Earle was viewed as the next savior, the man who would finally kick the Urban Cowboy garbage off the dial. So, in other words, the New Traditionalists were loved for being rebels, but only in that they rebelled in all the approved ways; the title, in this sense, reveals it all—New Traditionalist. Rebels with a cause. Rebels who would have been real rebels three decades earlier.
Indeed, the first track on The Definitive Collection, “Nothin’ But You”, shows a young, restless Earle trying desperately to dissent in the acceptable manners, but finding it hard to stay within the prescribed ways to be different. Classic honky-tonk rock, “Nothin’ But You” sees Earle harkening back to the early days of Sun Studio. Bathed in reverb, his voice sounds oddly like Roy Orbison’s—odd because Earle’s voice is not known for being pretty, and, as Springsteen once said, “Nobody sings like Roy Orbison.”
By “Guitar Town”, however, Earle was already developing his own style. Like the album of the same title, the song captures a rougher-edged Earle telling stories in song rather than merely singing tunes. “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)”, for example, explores the themes that have become synonymous with Earle: the struggles of the working man, the class divisions in the United States, the self-destructive things people do when ensnared by desperation. The song is classic Earle, though it lacks the overtly polemical politics and scathing bite of his nineties’ work.
Perhaps Guitar Town is over-represented on The Definitive Collection; one-third of the tracks on this collection come from Earle’s full-length debut, which is out of proportion for a man who released ten albums during the period this compilation covers. Copperhead Road is the second most represented album here, which is expected since it’s a landmark album in Earle’s career. As evidenced by the hard-rock sound of the title track, Copperhead Road was another step away from the oppressive rules of Nashville, as well as another step to the left. “Devil’s Right Hand”, also included here, is a subtle jab at the pro-gun mentality. The narrator shoots a man for cheating in a card game, but sincerely pleads not guilty because “nothing touched the trigger but the devil’s right hand”. Maybe the finest track here, however, is from 1997’s El Corazón; “Christmas in Washington” is Earle’s weary plea for Woody Guthrie to come back and fix the cold, corrupt state of politics. Not only is it a spot-on assessment of the current political climate, it’s also another link in a long tradition of American folk songs that Guthrie perfected.
If there’s one shortcoming to this collection, though, it’s that it does not sufficiently present the scope and depth of Earle’s career, which would take at least a double album—if not a box set—to achieve. Like many compilations of accomplished musicians, this one condenses too much, selecting the obvious tracks that are most associated with a period or achieved the greatest notoriety upon release. Of course, these compilations are supposed to be broad anthologies, not in-depth archives, and they’re aimed to the broadest audience possible. Still, for avid fans of Earle, The Definitive Collection offers little new but “Nothing But You”, which isn’t as readily available as the other tracks.
Moreover, by ending with 1997’s El Corazón and focusing on Earle’s more well-known songs, The Definitive Collection omits some of his recent forays into psychedelia (“Transcendental Blues”), calypso/reggae (“Condi, Condi”), traditional Irish music (“Galway Girl”), and a host of other styles. Also missing are the astounding duets Earle has made with numerous singers, such as “Poison Lovers” and “Comin’ Around”. And the liner notes? Well, they offer a thorough synopsis, but tell the making of Earle’s legend as it’s been told many times before.
And yet, for all the omissions, you can’t go amiss with nineteen tracks from an undeniable master like Steve Earle. He’s a man who doesn’t do filler, and you could listen to his entire discography and never heard a dud. Indeed, what this collection does accurately reveal is Earle’s genius; right from the beginning he possessed an innate knack for melody, harmony, and hooks—even if his style and voice have grown increasingly gruff. So, if you’re an avid Earle collector, you might skip this one because you’ve heard and read everything here before. If, however, you’re among the unschooled, this is a solid start. Just get ready to allot a hundred dollars or so out of your next check for your newly-created Steve Earle library.