Released 30 years ago, Guitar Town
established singer-guitarist Steve Earle as a tremendous talent in the alt-country world. Inspired by a Bruce Springsteen concert, Earle penned songs with a narrative approach, and they struck a chord.
“Nothing ever happened around my home town,” Earle sneers on the opening title track, a twangy tune that benefits from a touch of organ and kerplunk-y percussion. The nine songs that follow run the gamut and alternately suggest Earle's rockabilly roots and his admiration for anthemic rock 'n' roll.
On 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 7, at Music Box Supper Club
, Earle will perform the album in its entirety, something he’s doing in only a handful of cities. “It’s a cool show,” says Earle in a phone interview. “We did one for a fundraiser in San Francisco the night before Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival started. We play the album in its entirety and then we take a break and we come back and play a long set of whatever we feel like playing. You’ll get to hear a lot of stuff.”
Earle talked a bit about each song on the album.
It was the first song written for the album. I had been in Nashville for a long time, almost 13 years. I had had a record deal with Epic. I got signed because I had made this rockabilly record that was out on an independent label. My publisher basically put it out. Epic Records signed me because it was at the height of the rockabilly thing. I knew that wouldn’t hold me forever, especially as a songwriter, but it was fun, and it got me playing electric guitar for the first time. I was still pretty down, but I had signed a new publishing deal with Silverline-Goldline and the guy who ran it, Noel Fox, told me to write whatever I wanted to write and he’d get me another record deal. I had had a few songs recorded over the years but not that many. Justin, my son, had been born by that time, so I was in a little bit of a panic. A friend of mine took me to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It was a journalist friend of mine who had gotten two tickets. I saw Bruce walk out and play “Born in the U.S.A.” first and three hours and ten minutes later I walked out of there and knew exactly what to do and I went home and wrote “Guitar Town.” That’s where the line “good rockin' daddy down from Tennessee” came from. It was unapologetic. I was surprised that it became a single and became a hit because it had such a specific purpose to me, which was to be the opening track on the record and the opening song of the show.
“Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left”
It was a little bit of Springsteen. Springsteen and I are drawing on the same thing for sure. I had heard “Glory Days,” but I’m from San Antonio, Texas, and that’s where we both got that sound from. I knew [singer-songwriter] Doug Sahm from the time that I was 14 or 15 years old..
The stuff they call rockabilly is just real country music. Jimbeau Hinson and I wrote it. It was his idea. He read [country singer] Loretta Lynne’s book and she refers to what’s now I-65 running north out of the South to get you to Detroit. That was the idea behind it. It was written really early on. Bill Golden and the Oak Ridge Boys had a house where Jimbeau and Tony Brown and I went and wrote two or three songs on that trip.
“Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)”
There was always going to be rock songs on the album. It’s a rock song with a very country story. The character is not me. There are people who thought it was me. The only bad review I remember of Guitar Town
was somebody at the Boston Phoenix who thought I was some sort of proto Toby Keith or something. He didn’t realize that I wasn’t necessarily the character who was singing. Then he found out that Dave Marsh liked me and wrote a different take on the record for another publication. I don’t read reviews anymore, thank God. In those days, I definitely did. People become shocked now when I write something political but this is a very political song.
“My Old Friend the Blues”
I wrote it just before that trip to [Golden's house]. It was maybe the second or third song for the album. It’s one of the best songs I’ve written still to this day. I don’t know where it came from. There was something in me. As many times as I got married in the ’80s, I spent a lot of time alone. And loneliness is a pretty dependable source for this kind of music.
I definitely was that guy in the song. My parents were wonderful people, but I started running away when I was 14. I was running to something and not from anything. It was inspired by something I saw just a couple of years earlier. When I had the rockabilly band, we were coming back from Tulsa, I think, and were in Jackson, Tennessee and had just pulled off and were looking for gas. Maybe something was wrong with the van. I can’t remember, but we ran into this kid. It was evening. He was in a Last of the Mohicans old-fashioned gas station, and he was working on his own car in the bay. We had to honk the horn three times to get his attention. I hung it all on that kid.
“Think It Over”
That song and “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)” were co-written with Richard Bennett, the guitar player on the whole record. As I had the first few songs and knew I was writing the album and I had a record deal, I got on the Oaks’ buses and Deadheaded it out to the West Coast, where the busses were being ferried for a tour which the guys flew to. I road with the bus driver and got to L.A. I did a few different trips. I stayed at Richard Bennett’s house. He was playing guitar with Neil Diamond and had been for 17 years. He was a big influence. He was on the last tracks I did for Epic and produced some songs on the Rollin’ Rock record label in the early ’80s. I knew about him from that and there was a connection from [country singer-guitarist] Rodney [Crowell] because he was in Rodney’s band the Cherry Bombs. We wrote that track. Every note on it is Ricahrd. We made a demo where Richard played all the instruments. We couldn’t beat it. We tried doing it with the band in the studio. Finally, I stood there and sang and Richard played acoustic guitar and Harry Stinson played the snare drum. Richard went back and overdubbed the upright bass and the electric guitar. It’s all Richard and then Harry’s snare drum and me snging.
It kind of is a power ballad. It was the ‘80s, and I was trying to get laid. It was influenced to some degree by Springsteen but as much by the things that influenced me like Roy Orbison. I always thought of it as a Roy Orbison-like song. I’m don’t sing good enough to make it really a Roy Orbison song but it’s as close to a Roy Orbison song as I could get.
“Little Rock n Roller”
It was written right after I signed the record deal. I had written up most of the songs of the album. I had spilt up with my son Justin’s mother and was single for a moment. I missed JT and I wrote it.
“Down the Road”
I wrote “Down the Road” second after “Guitar Town.” I knew I had the opening, and I wrote it to be the ending of the album. Tony Brown is a writer on it because he gave me the first line, “on the blue side of evenings.” That’s his line, and the rest of it is mine. I gave him half of it. It’s too complicated to divide songs any other way. The mandolin is not me. It’s Emory Gordy, and he owns a Lloyd Loar-signed 1924 F-5. It’s a great mandolin. He got it from Ricky Skaggs about six months before we made the recording. That’s him playing mandolin on it.
Steve Earle & The Dukes, 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main St., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $45-$65, musicboxcle.com.