AUK’s Chain Gang: Steve Earle “Johnny Come Lately”

Freehold, New Jersey, and San Antonio, Texas, are separated by nearly 1,800 miles, occupy different timezones and typically differ by around 10 degrees celsius during summer. Nonetheless, one young troubadour starting out in Texas found inspiration and something bordering on a kindred spirit in “a pretty good hillbilly singer from New Jersey named Bruce Springsteen.”  So much so that on the ‘Guitar Town‘ tour of 1986, Steve Earle would turn out in a white t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, pale denim jeans and work ‘State Trooper’ into his live set.

I had the pleasure of seeing Steve Earle with Shawn Colvin at the Union Chapel, Islington, in 2016, where Steve described at length how, after years of trying to make the leap from songwriter at a publishing company to a recording artist in his own right, he saw Bruce and the E Street Band play Texas on the ‘Born in the USA’ tour and was suddenly enlightened. As Steve put it that night, “three hours and fifteen minutes later, I knew exactly what I had to do.”

By the time ‘Copperhead Road‘ came along in 1988, Steve Earle was at the top of his game and ready to produce what is arguably his companion piece to ‘Born in the USA’. Besides the obvious nod in the opening line – “I’m an American boys, I’ve come a long way, I was born and bred in the USA” – ‘Johnny Come Lately’ offers a rollicking riff and is told from the perspective of a retuning Vietnam war veteran. While ‘Born in the USA’ more or less directly addresses this, ‘Johnny Come Lately’ sends us a dummy by first re-telling the story of a World War II veteran. The kicker, of course, with the latter is that the narrator’s grandfather’s heroic return is really just a set-up to contrast that homecoming experience with his own experience as a Vietnam vet.

Whether Steve had ‘Born in the USA’ directly in mind or not when he penned it is open to debate. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. At some point it’s important to stop analysing and just enjoy the music. Speaking of which, here’s Steve and Bruce performing the song together on stage at Tradewinds in Sea Bright, New Jersey, in 1998.

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