Steve Earle was already in his 30’s when ‘Guitar Town’ was released in 1986, so it is perhaps unsurprising that he had been able to stockpile songs of such quality that the record already sounded like a greatest hits set. In this, perhaps he was following in the footsteps of one of his primary mentors, Guy Clark, whose own classic debut ‘Old No.1’ was released ten years earlier, when Clark was the ripe old age of 34.
Earle had been on the songwriting scene for many years without really coming close to a breakthrough moment, although he had learnt at the feet of the likes of Clark and Townes van Zandt (he can be seen at a musical gathering at Clark’s house in the legendary ‘Heartburn Highways’ movie). When his moment came, however, he seized it with both hands.
It’s hard to know if it was a recognition of talent or simply good luck, but suddenly in the mid 1980’s, what was then christened ‘alt-country’ or ‘new country’ was bursting with talented singer-songwriters who somehow managed to find the spotlight. Along with Earle, there were Nanci Griffith, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen jnr and more suddenly appeared on stage and in the country music charts. It was a truly exciting time, albeit one that was fairly short-lived in terms of commercial success (once Garth Brooks arrived and moved the financial goalposts in Music City).
‘Guitar Town’ just bristles with the energy of a young musician going places, from the dynamic opening acoustic guitar rush of the title track, which is then quickly followed by the equally fine ‘Goodbye is All We’ve Got Left to Say’ and the rocking, hard-edged groove of ‘Hillbilly Highway’. These were songs that were clearly country music, but with a toe in the Springsteen widescreen view of American music – and played by a band that were as taut as a stretched elastic band, every note fairly humming and buzzing with a barely contained excitement. No song outstayed its welcome, another signifier of the freshness the band brought – ‘Guitar Town’ the song clocks in at 2½ minutes, even the epic ‘Someday’ and stately country-pop hymn ‘Fearless Heart’ are only around 4 minutes.
Many of the markers of Earle’s future work are also in place, from the unfettered political stance of ‘Good Ol’ Boy (Getting’ Tough)’, to the wondrous balladry of ‘My Old Friend The Blues’, just the first of Earle’s seemingly endless supply of heartbreakers which have been scattered across his discography.
Then there’s ‘Little Rock’n’ Roller’, in which he sings down the telephone line to his toddler son Justin Townes Earle, a song full of the heartfelt messages that a father away from home gives to his child, with lines like “One of these days when you’re a little older, you can ride the big bus, everything’ll be alright” made even more poignant now, when we know how that story developed and ultimately ended.
The band he assembled were on top form. Indeed, the primary sound of the album, Richard Bennett’s twangy lead guitar, is on show within seconds, and remains a mainstay throughout, a clear statement against the airbrushed mainstream of the country music charts of the time. Similarly the pedal steel of Bucky Baxter, the swirling keyboards of Ken Moore and the fist tight rhythms of drummer Harry Stinson and legendary ‘Hot Band’ bass man Emory Gordy jnr all provided a pin sharp musical backing.
Earle has made many fine records in his time, and of course has gone on to become a genuine legend in americana music and songwriting, and a champion for many causes both inside and outside music. This remains a high point in his catalogue, though, with many of the tracks absolute classics, and deserving their place in the pantheon of great country music.