Covered In Folk: Steve Earle
(15 tracks, plus bonus coverage from Justin Townes Earle!)

Steve Earle made his name early and adeptly on both sides of the singer-songwriter label, dropping out of ninth grade to study the music business, moving to the heart of country in his twentieth year after a hard-scrabble teenage musician’s life in Houston to pen mid-career hits for Carl Perkins, Patty Loveless, Johnny Lee, and others in the Nashville scene, all the while making his own path through the wilderness of rockabilly, country, and folk. Throughout, he emerged as a poet and political activist, even as he struggled as an outlaw and an addict, and Wikipedia is right to suggest that these origins are intertwined, in no small part because, as a struggling young songwriter, he was too young to play in bars and clubs, and was thus forced to find a place for himself in the liberal coffeehouse scene of the late sixties and early seventies “alongside anti-Vietnam War campaigners”.

It’s notable here that although Earle has been in the running for 14 Grammys since his first pair of nominations for Best Country Song and Best Country Male Vocalist in 1987, he has won only three, all in the Contemporary Folk category, and all since the mid-2000s, starting with Best Contemporary Folk Album for his 2004 anti-Iraq War collection The Revolution Starts Now. Though the drift from one genre category to the next speaks simultaneously to Earle’s own changing artistic sensibilities and a parallel drift in at-large genre definition, surely, even the most apolitical of scenewatchers could not deny that the increased stature which has resulted from his increasingly political work as a musician and the generally liberal pro-activist mindset of the Academy at large has also affected the voting in these categories.

But to judge Steve Earle primarily on his recent grizzled appearance as a cynical grey-bearded prophet on The Wire and Treme, or on the overtly politicized music which has won him praise and admiration in the last decade, is to miss out on the 35 year career of a broad-minded, clear-spoken musician deeply involved in the business of crafting songs that speak to the whole and various caverns of our hearts. From his early work alongside Texas troubadours Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt to mid-career collaborations with Emmylou Harris, T-Bone Walker, and other luminaries working the Americana spread, his total artistic output represents a breadth of genius easily equal to such collaborators.

Happily, his peers have not missed out, and though they sometimes find anger where it is warranted, the deeper catalog they mine contains hope and harrow enough. Which is to say: Steve Earle is well-respected for a reason, and though his politics have surely helped its spread, his songbook is not merely repeated because of any political affiliation. There’s love, here, and loss too: of the wistful, Texas country type, and of something deeper, stiller, that springs eternal even as it mourns the closeness of winter. You can hear it in the songs and performances alike, making for an apt tribute in folk.

Looking for more? Though today’s feature subject has covered plenty of songs himself in his four decade career, my lifetime dream of producing an album of second-generation musicians covering the songs of their parents is too tempting a project to ignore in these circumstances – most especially because, despite being left with his mother as a toddler in 1984, the second-gen artist in question has since shared stage, addiction, and fame with his famous father, thus proving the viability of such a project. Hence our bonus tracks today: a few choice selections from the recent work of Justin Townes Earle, whose proud continuance of the family name has sparked the indiefolk ear since his first album dropped in 2007.

Category: Covered in Folk, Steve Earle 2 comments »

2 Responses to “Covered In Folk: Steve Earle
(15 tracks, plus bonus coverage from Justin Townes Earle!)

  1. Myck

    Jesus(so to speak), Nothing But A Child is stunningly beautiful!

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