Steve Earle used to be a decent songwriter. He used to be a Nashville craftsman with a populist bent, a country singer whose songs were at once universal and faceless. Mentored by fellow Texan Townes Van Zandt, Earle played country with a rock-and-roller’s heart, crossing over to both genres and paving the way for indie’s acceptance of alt-country acts. Guitar Town and Exit 0 (his debut and sophomore records, respectively) were the opposite of Nashville’s neo-revisionist tactics and probably made a few “anything but country” music fans feel uncomfortable in their own snobbery. Dwight Yoakam and Lyle Lovett may have had larger profiles, but Earle was just as responsible for reinvigorating traditional country.
To be honest, we probably wouldn’t still be discussing Earle’s work if he had remained merely decent. Enter the artistic rebirth: after hitting a personal low plagued by drugs and arrests in the early ’90s, Earle suddenly stopped being adequate and became peerless. Clean and sober, Earle’s prolific string of seven albums in nine years — Train a Comin’, I Feel Alright, El Corazon, The Mountain, Transcendental Blues, Jerusalem, and The Revolution Starts… Now — has been nothing short of masterful. It has also usurped the first half of his career: Earle, formerly competent songwriter, now makes sonically adventurous records with political and social conscience.
Back to those less ambitious days of simpler songs. Now available on either CD or DVD is Live from Austin TX, which captures Earle’s 1986 performance on Austin City Limits. Where the show originally aired an edited selection of songs, this new album offers the entire 65-minute set. Included are some of the strongest songs from Earle’s early years: the infectious ramshackle of “Guitar Town”, the first-pumper “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)”, and the dapper bounce of the organ-spiced “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left” are some of the highlights. With the first incarnation of his band the Dukes at his side (Ron Kling, Ken Moore, Bucky Baxter, Harold Stinson, and Mike McAdam), Earle rollicks through 17 songs from Guitar Town and the upcoming Exit 0 (excluding “The Devil’s Right Hand”, which would later appear on 1998’s Copperhead Road, and a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”). This is a kinder, gentler Earle, heavily influenced by The River-era Springsteen with odes to cars and heartache. There’s more reckless twang in his voice and old Nashville in his veins, a sharp contrast to the ragged breathlessness exhibited in Shut Up and Die like an Aviator, Earle’s live album from 1991.
Earle looks boyish here, sporting blue jeans and a white V-neck T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up; he leads the Dukes fearlessly, with the poise and grip of a seasoned pro. The band isn’t as complex or ferocious as the Dukes circa 2004 (in fact, the dated hairstyles and fashion elicit greater reactions than the simple playing), but Earle’s songs are done respectable justice. There’s a traditional showmanship quality to the performances — the lead guitarist steps to the front of the stage for a solo, for instance — and each player seems comfortable if not dominant. Traditional country (“Think It Over”) and contemporary country (“My Old Friend the Blues”) are tackled with equal aplomb.
Although Earle would grow darker and more complicated with age, Live from Austin TX is still a nice treat for fans interested in his artistic genesis. As far as live albums go, Earle has several, but this is the only official document of his 1986 lineup. Both the CD and DVD have an identical track listing (and the DVD doesn’t boast extras), so neither format is superior to the other. Listening to and watching Live from Austin TX, you can’t help but have a knowing smile on your face; while it’s all well and good, hindsight tells you that Earle would only get better through the years.