Steve Earle: Sidetracks

Andrew Gilstrap

Sidetracks is Earle's collection of what he calls "stray songs", songs that never made it to albums, or which can only be found on obscure compilations, soundtracks, or import editions of his albums.

Steve Earle


Label: Artemis
US Release Date: 2002-04-09
UK Release Date: 2002-05-06

A young hotshot songwriter shows up in Nashville, signs a publishing contract, makes a record or two, and promptly gets dropped by his label. He spends time living in South Nashville slums, a needle stuck in his arm most of his waking hours. Somehow, he cleans up and starts making powerful records that Nashville tries to ignore but can't. Ultimately, he becomes a mentor to an entire generation of songwriters who don't see a dang thing wrong with mixing gospel with country, rock with bluegrass, or acting like music is powerful art.

Steve Earle's history is well-documented, but it bears repeating every once in a while to remind us that he's the real deal in more ways than one. Few artists have been able to rein in their demons once they've been given absolute freedom; fewer still have the ability to channel that experience into lifelike portraits of Civil War soldiers, death row guards, middle-aged men, reprobates, saints, and sinners with so much conviction that you feel like you're sitting right beside them.

Sidetracks is Earle's collection of what he calls "stray songs", songs that never made it to albums, or which can only be found on obscure compilations, soundtracks, or import editions of his albums. This isn't some combing of the archive's darkest corners to make a few more bucks off of a legacy. Earle's arguably as vital today as he was when he hit Nashville all full of spit and vinegar, and Sidetracks works as one of his most satisfying releases to date. He's hardly scraping the bottom of the barrel -- these are good songs.

The track that seems to have everyone talking is Earle's stab at Nirvana's "Breed". The opening chords shred through your speakers, then go back to kick them around a little bit more. When you're done marvelling at Earle's faithful take (it's easy to forget his rocker side sometimes), you find yourself remarking that Nirvana was one hell of a band -- never a bad thing. Of the major risks that Earle takes on Sidetracks, "Breed" is definitely the most successful. The other, his reggae-laden version of "Johnny Too Bad", isn't too much of a stretch -- he's certainly flirted with reggae before -- but Earle defers so completely to guests RNT and C-Fax that it loses the Steve Earle feel.

"Breed" and "Johnny Too Bad", though, don't mark the end of the covers. One of the hidden pleasures of Sidetracks is that seven of the disc's 13 songs weren't written by Earle. He's joined by the Bluegrass Dukes for both a soulful, twangy take on Little Feat's "Willin'" and a spirited live run-through of the Flying Burrito Brothers' "My Uncle". He reprises one cut ("Creepy Jackalope Eye") from his sessions with the Supersuckers, and Sheryl Crow joins him for a go at the Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today" (Crow's vocals are excellent, and Earle's use of Abbie Hoffman soundbites is inspired). As for Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages", Earle pretty much admits in the liner notes that he's singing out of his range, but the line "I was so much older then / I'm younger than that now" takes on a new shade of meaning when he sings it.

Of Earle's original compositions, two are instrumentals: the Celtic flavored "Dominick St." and the bluegrass-steeped "Sara's Angel" (both left off of his Transcendental Blues album). "Some Dreams" (from the soundtrack to The Rookie), "Open Your Window" (from Pay it Forward), and "Me and the Eagle" (The Horse Whisperer) are all classic Earle meditations on taking a chance. They're all fine songs, but the real treasure is an alternate version of Dead Man Walking's "Ellis Unit One". Featuring the Fairfield Four, this version offers a resonant spirituality that drapes itself comfortably over the song's stark, harrowing frame.

Naturally, Sidetracks lacks the thematic consistency of a "proper" Earle album like Train a Comin', Transcendental Blues, or I Feel Alright, but it still holds up extremely well. The material works together, and Earle's choice of covers is mostly in keeping with his increasingly political elder-statesman stance. There's not a clunker to be found anywhere on Sidetracks ("Johnny Too Bad" might not feel like Steve Earle, but it's still a good song), and it's refreshing to hear Earle's takes on so many other writers' songs. For all he's been through, it seems that Steve Earle never lost contact with his muse, and we're reaping the benefits.






Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".


Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."


The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.


Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.