Words and music: Caine O’Rear
Beneath the veneer of his country-rock stylings, the early work of Steve Earle is shot through with moving descriptions of working-class life. His stirring debut album from 1986, Guitar Town, is haunted by characters hopelessly mired in small-town and rural America, barely scraping by in landscapes that are as bleak spiritually as they are impoverished. On the title track, Earle writes about his own life, with a deft nod to Hank Williams: “Nothin’ ever happened ‘round my hometown/And I ain’t the kind to just hang around/But I heard somethin’ callin’ my name one day/And I followed that voice down a lost highway.” It’s a nod, of course, to Williams’ classic “Lost Highway,” a song written by Leon Payne.
This image of small-town life and the urgency to leave it behind is as blue-collar as it is timeless Americana. But Earle’s characters are not so much conquered by fate as embattled by the forces of culture and economics — and he returns to these subjects for his latest project, Ghosts of West Virginia, out Friday. In these early works, there is the distance between aspiration and reality, and it is here where the struggle to survive with some semblance of meaning intact is maintained. On the song “Someday,” a Springsteen-esque anthem from Guitar Town, Earle relates the tale of a young man who pumps gas by the interstate yet yearns to know “what’s over that rainbow.” In “No. 29,” a tune from Earle’s sophomore album Exit O, a middle-aged man is sustained by little more than his glory days on the gridiron, which he relives every Friday night when he watches the town’s star tailback, wearing the narrator’s old jersey number, play at the local high school. Early Steve Earle was country music, all right: songs about the frustrated working man and the tender mercies that keep him going through hard times. But in Earle’s case, it is country music written by someone who knows the city just as well.
I wrote a brief bio of John Hartford for the new Hartford tribute, On The Road, a benefit album for MusiCares.
John Hartford is one of those unique American creations whose life could have been born from the pen of Mark Twain. Like Twain, Hartford grew up along the banks of the Mississippi River, where in his youth he worked on a steamboat, a passion that would have become a career, he said, had the imprint of the roustabout minstrel within been any less strong.
Like the great American river, Hartford’s music traverses vast terrain: he was a masterly country-folk songwriter, a brilliant interpreter of old-time and early bluegrass, a progenitor of newgrass, and a dynamic live performer whose sense of exuberance and whimsy influenced scores of musicians across generations. Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon recalls Hartford’s onstage power, saying, “I’ve never seen a performer so absolutely capture a crowd. He was the complete package…and there will never be another like him.”
Hartford’s late-’60s, country-folk-pop masterpiece, “Gentle On My Mind,” made popular by his friend and frequent collaborator Glen Campbell, is regarded as a standard in the Great American Songbook. In 1971, Hartford pioneered a new sound with the album Aereo-plane, a solo project that found the musical visionary connecting the hippies with the hillbillies and stretching the boundaries of traditional folk and bluegrass into more “herb-friendly” zones. “Without the album Aereo-plane, there would be no newgrass music,” says Sam Bush, the revered mandolinist who popularized the genre with his band New Grass Revival.
LoHi Records will honor Hartford’s legacy this summer with On The Road: A Tribute To John Hartford. All proceeds from the project will benefit MusiCares, an outfit run by The Grammy Foundation that offers critical assistance to musicians in times of crisis and need. Their work is crucial, for the economic realities of being a musician have never been more dire. All of the artists on this album understand the pressures of not only surviving but creating art in a deteriorating financial landscape. Sadly, the past year witnessed several well-known musicians succumbing to deaths of despair and this album serves as a rallying cry in the face of those tragedies. Resources do exist and it is hoped that this album can shine more light on those that can help. Now with the arrival of Covid- 19 erasing all live performance, a further reduction in artists’ incomes is inevitable and resources like MusiCares have become even more essential. “This is going to call on our better angels to come out during this time,” says Vince Herman. “I hope we all are feeling that we’re all in the same boat, and we either sink or swim together.”
The music of Hartford, who died in 2001 after a long battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, courses through myriad styles of American music, so it’s fitting the album features 14 reworkings of Hartford originals from some of the preeminent artists in the worlds of Americana, folk, country traditional bluegrass and jamgrass. “This album is an homage to all these hardworking musicians who are out on the road making their living,” says Chad Staehly, one of LoHi’s founders, who is also keyboard player for Great American Taxi and Hard Working Americans.
The album opens with Sam Bush’s rendition of title track “On The Road,” a song Bush performed live with Hartford as far back as 1977. As a kid growing up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Bush first heard Hartford on CBS’s Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and later on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, and he’d record some of those television performances straight from the tube into a cassette player, he says. On trips to Nashville with his dad, Bush would gobble up copies of Hartford albums at Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop. Years later, he would go on to collaborate with Hartford on numerous occasions. He looks back fondly on picking parties at Hartford’s residence in Nashville that, he says, would last four or five days at a time. “I never met anyone who liked to jam as much as John,” Bush says. And coming from the mouth of Sam Bush, that’s saying something.
On The Road was recorded in studios across the country, and yet, it sounds amazingly cohesive. Hartford’s music had a deep spiritual center, to be sure, and it’s that core that shines through in each of the album’s cuts. And while no tribute album could explore every nook and cranny of Hartford’s extensive catalog, this album hits some of the high points of a career that spans more than three decades. Railroad Earth offers an affecting version of “Delta Queen Waltz,” one of several paeans to the steamboat life written by Hartford in his lifetime. John Carter Cash and Jerry Douglas perform one of his better known and well-covered tunes, “In Tall Buildings,” a song about bidding adieu to the pastoral life and going to work for the man. The Infamous Stringdusters contribute a soulful reading of “Gentle On My Mind,” while Americana folkie Todd Snider serves up a stripped-down version of “I Wish We Had Our Time Again.” Keller Williams, the pan-genre wunderkind, teams up with the Travelin’ McCourys for the zany “Granny Woncha Smoke Some Marijuana,” a cut from Hartford’s mid-’70s pushing-the-envelope period when he was recording on an independent label. Williams, a wild and chameleonic performer in his own right, is certainly an heir to Hartford’s solo performance tradition. Longtime Hartford enthusiasts Leftover Salmon funk it up with “The Category Stomp,” one of Hartford’s earlier songs from the late ’60s, and one whose lyrics speak to the man’s musical manifesto (“It’s a folk-country-disco-tech-soft-rock-contemporary-abstract- expressionism-word-movie-flower-power-hard-ragging-neo-bluegrass-stoned-billy-dirty- boogie-freak-down-coming-on-jellybean-psychedelic stomp”). “I just love that stuff,” says Vince Herman. “It’s old-timey rap, I guess, and the chance to put a kind of funky thing on it seemed like a good idea. I think John would approve of the direction we took on it.”
The lyrics to “On The Road” encapsulate what the album is about. “Every day it’s your turn, another verse to be earned/ it’s a road, no big turn/ won’t get home much this year.” The album closes with an additional version of the title track, this one by banjo whiz Danny Barnes in solo guise. It’s a full-circle moment that captures the spirit of Hartford’s life and music, and in a very real sense, all of American music, that great unbroken circle that connects one and all forever. Long live John Hartford.
The night before the release of The Unraveling, the new album from Drive-By Truckers that dropped January 31, Patterson Hood posted a picture to Instagram of the New York City skyline at night. He captioned the photo: “Thirty-one years ago, Lou Reed’s New York album was one of my two favorite albums of the year. Neil Young’s Freedom was the other one. Both of those album politically pointed to this current moment in time … Within a week there will be Brexit, the Iowa 2020 caucus and most likely Trump’s acquittal. The soul of America has been sold out (to paraphrase Marianne Faithful) ‘for such a low bid.’”
Lou Reed’s New York, generally regarded as one of his stronger solo efforts, documents the dark underbelly of Gotham in the late ’80s, turning its lens on the city’s street denizens and working-class hustlers, the folks struggling to pay rent to a landlord “who’s laughing till he wets his pants.” The album could’ve been written yesterday. As Reed sings on “Dirty Boulevard”: “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ‘em/ that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says/ Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ‘em to death/ and get it over with and just dump ‘em on the boulevard.”
Young’s Freedom, the more well-known of the two, opens and closes with acoustic and electric versions of “Rockin’ In The Free World,” respectively. It’s a song the Truckers uncork regularly in concert these days and it works as a sort of thematic centerpiece to the live show.
The Unraveling — the title of which recalls liberal economist Paul Krugram’s 2003 book The Great Unraveling — is very much in the spirit of the Young and Reed efforts. It’s also a suitemate of sorts to the band’s 2016 release American Band, the group’s most pointedly political album up to that point and one that attempted to grapple with hot-button issues of the republic like gun control and Black Lives Matter.
The Unraveling was recorded in a mere six days at Sun Studios in Memphis, and the immediacy shines through. The album is mostly a Hood affair, with co-principal songwriter Mike Cooley contributing just two songs. The opening track “Rosemary With A Bible And A Gun,” a Southern Gothic travelogue that recalls Springsteen’s Nebraska and namechecks Memphis photographer William Eggleston, is a bit of an outlier on the record. Cinematic in its scope, it’s a cryptic story that sets the tone for what’s to follow. The next song, “Armageddon’s Back In Town,” is a dirty rocker about the return of Reagan-era, Cold War paranoia, with Hood lamenting that “you can’t tell the rabbit from the hat” in his trademark Southern rasp. “Thoughts and Prayers,” the album’s first single, deals with the failure of the political establishment to take action on societal horrors like mass gun violence, while “21st Century USA” chronicles the dry rot of small-town life, painting Anytown, America as a place of Wells Fargos, KFCs, payday loan centers, and shitty bars, populated by folks working for shrinking pay while awaiting the return of the Savior. “Heroin Again” laments an acquaintance’s relapse on a drug that is finding its ways into new corners of American society as painkiller addictions rage and scripts get harder to come by. “Babies In Cages,” a title that could be the authoritarian state writ large, is a plaintive cry of the heart, with Hood singing, “This ain’t the country our grandads fought for us to be.”
The Truckers, now 12 albums deep in a career full of twists and turns, have never been shrinking violets when it comes to politics, which is something of a rarity for rock bands from the American south. The group’s breakthrough double-album Southern Rock Opera was a deeply political affair, one could argue, exploring what Hood called “the duality of the Southern thing.” Hood was born in the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama in 1964, the year of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a watershed piece of legislation that tilted much of the white, working-class south in the direction of the Republican party. Southern Rock Opera explored the nuances of race and politics throughout Alabama history, referencing everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd to George Wallace, a politician now regarded as a forerunner to Trump. As The Unraveling drops, three Alabama politicians are vying for the Republican nomination for Senate, all of them desperately trying to out-Trump one another, with former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville suggesting Trump was chosen by God to be president, House Rep. Bradley Byrne running a series of blatantly racist ads that go well beyond dog-whistling, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions championing the record of a president who kicked him to the curb like a mangy dog. Clearly, not much has changed in the neighborhood.
“This is no time for circumlocution, this is no time for learned speech,” Lou Reed sings on New York. The Truckers would seem to agree. The Unraveling is as hard-boiled and direct as anything they’ve written, and there are no words minced. Politics and art have always been tricky bedfellows, and some artists come up short in their efforts, with the music amounting to nothing more than cheap dogma and rhetoric. And while this isn’t the best Truckers’ album by a long shot, it is a pretty good one, and one that achieves its objective of holding the mirror up to a country that’s bargained so much of its soul.
In a recent interview with Forbes magazine, Hood said he wanted his kids to know which side of history he stood on when the smoke eventually clears. This album makes it abundantly clear.
From May/June 2019 Editor’s Note of American Songwriter.
“When I listen to other songwriters, I’ve never found anything more powerful than when you don’t have to use every little word in the English language. It has to be sparse.”
That’s Justin Townes Earle, the subject of this issue’s cover story, talking to American Songwriter back in 2014, shortly before the release of the album Single Mothers. Later this month, Earle returns to the mix with his eighth full-length studio effort The Saint Of Lost Causes, which is being released on New West Records. For this collection, the 37-year-old Nashville native continues to employ considerable economy in his lyrical approach. Thematically, the album finds Earle working with big-picture, topical subject matter, turning his eye on America’s social challenges à la one of his songwriting heroes, Woody Guthrie.
This pivot toward the macro marks something of a shift for Earle, whose subject matter has typically favored a more first-person, autobiographical approach. Yet Earle insists the new album is “social” and not “political” in nature. The songs address complicated subjects that are beyond any one person’s power to affect, but have an impact upon all of us individually — issues of gentrification, the opioid epidemic, among others, but make no mistake, nothing in this work drifts toward coffeehouse folk. Like many of the works in his catalog, these songs are dressed up in various elements of southern roots music: boogie-woogie blues, noirish country, Memphis rock and roll.
One of the album’s more affecting numbers, “Over Alameda,” comes about halfway through the album. It’s a ballad set in South Central Los Angeles that tells a story of generational poverty, de facto segregation, and deindustrialization that culminates with a subtle suggestion of the causes of gang life. A country folk-sounding number with ghostly pedal steel, the lyrics are sparse, and decades of American history and economics are detailed with a handful of simple verses about a family.
Mama would tell me of her hopes
What she hoped to leave behind
What she thought she would find out in California
She’d talk about Mississippi
Still don’t know how it is
Any place can be worse than this
It’s hard to believe
The song takes its place in the long line of “going-to-California” folk songs. The song’s speaker is a 19-year-old boy living in the Jordan Downs Housing Project in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. We understand that his mother had moved from the Mississippi Delta to Los Angeles in the mid-’60s and his parents bought a home after his father landed a job at the Firestone factory in south Los Angeles. But the story takes a turn when the factory closes down, and that Promised Land remains ever elusive, even in the California of our collective imagination.
Then the jobs moved out
Then daddy died and we lost the house
Moved into the Jordan Downs
And been here ever since
Once they’ve settled in Jordan Downs, the mother dreams of life “Over Alameda,” the street that borders the housing project to the east, beyond which “the green grass grows” and the “white folks live.” But the young protagonist has only known life in Jordan Downs, and he says “all I have discovered/ There is nothing for a boy of color but to fight.” Jordan Downs was ground zero for the Grape Street Watts Crips, a notorious gang that was the subject of the early ’90s film Menace II Society, and while the narrator does not explicitly say he is a Crip, all he knows is that very neighborhood and the reality of an endless fight to escape to something better, “over Alameda.” The listener can fill in the gaps how they see fit.
Ernest Hemingway explained the importance of omission in writing in his treatise on bullfighting, Death In The Afternoon, arguing that he attempted to show only the tip of the iceberg in his work. “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about,” Hemingway said, “he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
In the same spirit, Earle does not spell out the historical and geographical minutiae of the story. Such details are not necessary for one to fully apprehend the overtures of meaning offered by the song. “Over Alameda” is really just a song about the hope for something better, and it allows the emotion of the music to convey that hope as much as anything else. The listener must rely on their own creative capacity to fill in the details of the story, which in turn helps deepen their connection to the song. As a result, instead of creating distance between the listener and his work through his economy, Earle is closing it.
Hemingway’s iceberg analogy is indeed an interesting theory of writing, certainly not the only one, but one Justin Townes Earle seems to have used remarkably well.