[5 October 2003]
I don’t think Steve Earle is 50 years old yet. Can’t we, at the very least, agree on one or two parameters regarding exactly what constitutes a master? How about an amazing musical output, plus advanced age? I mean, if we’re going to designate an artist a “master” before the age of 50, can he or she at least have died?
The best of/greatest hits/essential/mastery trip has become—has been forever, really—nothing more than a marketing tool. The Best of Steve Earle: 20th Century Masters The Millennium Collection is probably one of the most egregious examples of this I have seen. This coming from a huge Steve Earle fan.
To begin, Earle has been releasing albums since 1986’s Guitar Town, an undeniably great album from which several of these songs were taken. The songs collected here, however, only represent material released over a two-year period, from 1986 to 1988. Hardly a fair and balanced sampling of this iconoclastic roots rocker¹s extremely prolific writing and recording career. In fact, Earle has released six records in the last six years, and some of his best material is on those records. Times are hard, especially for the music industry. Guess MCA just figured they’d try to make a couple of bucks off the portion of his catalog they still had legal access to. The liner notes for this collection make it sound as if Steve Earle died—or has been in jail or rehab for the past twelve years. True, he hasn¹t had a country hit since the late ‘80s, but something tells me Earle would rather not be associated with the Tim McGraws, Toby freakin’ Keiths, and Kenny Chesneys of the biz. I¹d also venture to say Earle is selling more records now than he did in the late ‘80s when he was touted as the “country John Mellencamp” and lumped into the same category of “new” country with the likes of Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. Yoakam did kick butt in Sling Blade, but you get my drift.
There is nothing new offered on this collection, no song or version of a song that cannot be found elsewhere, on one of the many “best of” or “essential” Steve Earle albums. In fact, The Essential Steve Earle, also released by MCA, has the same exact tracks, plus one more, “Devil’s Right Hand” from Copperhead Road, which was probably the most mature and, certainly the best produced of his first three releases. MCA just changed the package and threw it back out there, attempting to get us to lay down another wad of cash for the same exact product, minus a track. If there are motivators for picking up this CD, it is the price and the brevity. All of the 20th Century Masters The Millennium Collection CDs cost around ten dollars, as opposed to more pricey compilations. So, if you’re looking strictly for an introduction to Steve Earle’s early years at an affordable price, this album is probably your best bet. The brevity is also nice. Frankly, there’s something magical about twelve tracks. Maybe more is better, but not for me. The amount of music found on CDs these days leaves me feeling full and bloated and keeps me from listening to albums as much as I might. Artists and labels are so anxious to push product, artists are forced to offer material that doesn¹t always rate, just so they can say they’re giving you more.
Compare prices first. If The Essential Steve Earle is the same, buy that. “Devil’s Right Hand”, the extra song, is truly a Steve Earle essential.