Classic Americana Albums: Steve Earle “Washington Square Serenade”

New West Records, 2007

Album cover artwork for Steve Earle "Washington Square Serenade"I have chosen Steve Earle’s 2007 album ‘Washington Square Serenade’ as this week’s classic album. There will be lots of debate as to which is Earle’s best album; this is my favourite. In particular, I find the lyrics on some of the songs very affecting and this makes the songs very memorable. Many of the melodies are excellent too, but this is harder to explain and is just personal taste, really.

The album was Earle’s 12th and was sandwiched between 2004’s ‘The Revolution Starts Now’ and his album of Townes Van Zant covers ‘Townes’, released in 2009. Recorded at the famous Electric Lady Studios in New York, it was produced by John King who is one half of the Dust Brothers duo, the other being Mike Simpson “E.Z. Mike”. They are famous for their sample-based music and have produced Beck’s ‘Odelay’ and The Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul’s Boutique’, amongst others; not your typical americana musicians. King got a Grammy for his production work on this album and the album itself got a 2008 Grammy as Best Contemporary Folk/Americana album.

The album starts with ‘Tennessee Blues’ with Earle’s Texan drawl backed with guitar picking and some beautiful lead guitar. This sets the scene for the album, which at times concerns Earle’s life in New York, by describing his wanderlust which makes him leave “guitar town” and move to The Big Apple. It is followed brilliantly by ‘Down Here Below’ which paints a wonderful picture of New York from the eye of a hawk swooping above New York and eyeing up its prey. Although it is the hawk’s voice that speaks here, “He looks up and down Fifth Avenue/ And says, “God, I love this town”, you feel that this is Earle speaking about his affection for the city. He contrasts the life of the hawk with the people living in the city struggling by and ends by bemoaning the gentrification of the city:

“Hey, whatever happened to Alphabet City?/ Ain’t no place left in this town that a poor boy can go”

Later on, in ‘City Of Immigrants’ Earle describes the melting pot that New York is with all the different languages and the 24-hour-a-day living: “Livin’ in a city that never sleeps/ My heart keepin’ time to a thousand beats/ singin’ in languages I don’t speak”. Although he isn’t explicitly positive about immigration, he paints such a vibrant picture of multicultural New York; I can’t think of a more positive lyric and so find it very powerful. 

‘Sparkle And Shine’ and ‘Days Aren’t Long Enough’ are fantastic emotional love songs addressed to his then wife, country singer Allison Moorer. In the first, Earle appears to be besotted with her: “I can’t sleep, y’all, and I can’t eat/ Sparks fly whenever we meet/ I’m breathless ’cause she’s so cool”. In the latter, where Moorer, who had co-written the track, joins him on vocals, Earle celebrates their life together:

“Another year has come and gone/ Another circle around the sun/ Another thousand tears have fallen/ I don’t ever count ’em ’cause/ I’m surrounded by your love/ And days are never long enough”

Ironically, the marriage didn’t last- married in 2005, they separated in 2012, having had one son, John Henry, together. Moorer has since married Hayes Carll and produced his 2019 album ‘What It Is’. Earle has had a well-documented turbulent love life; he has been married seven times, twice to the same woman. 

Earle gets more political towards the end of the record. On the rollicking ‘Steve’s Hammer’ he looks forward to the day when he can stop campaigning because the world’s wrongs have been put to right: “When the war is over and the union’s strong/ Won’t sing no more angry songs”. ‘Oxycontin Blues’ tells the story of an addict, starting with the struggles of his father: “Well, my daddy worked in the coal mine/ Till the company shut it down/ Then he sat around and drank his-self blind/ Till we put him back underground” Here and in the apocalyptic ‘Red Is The Color’ we see the blues and bluegrass influences which are a thread which runs through Earle’s work. He goes back to writing about family in ‘Jericho Road’ where the singer meets his mother, father, sister and brother in a dream where they are wearily tramping the dusty road.

In the jaunty ‘Satellite Radio’ Earle is getting ready to play on the radio and wondering if anyone is listening. The gentler ‘Come Back Home’ is a tender and heartfelt plea to a lover to return. The album ends with a cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Way Down In A Hole’, which was used as the title song for Series 5 of the momentous TV series ‘The Wire’ about police and gangs in Baltimore. Earle has a smallish role in it as a recovering drug addict. 

Other favourite Earle albums for me are ‘El Corazon’ and ‘Terraplane’, rather than the more famous ‘Guitar Town’ and ‘Copperhead Road’ for example, but the number of outstanding tracks makes this album stand out from the pack. 

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