Steve Earle: The Definitive Collection: 1983-1987

Summarizing Steve Earle’s amazing career in one disc just isn't possible, but you can't go wrong with any compilation of the master.

Steve Earle

The Definitive Collection: 1983-1997

Label: Hip-O
US Release Date: 2006-08-29
UK Release Date: 2006-08-29

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.







Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.


In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?


The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

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.