Last night Steve Earle and the Dukes rolled into St. John’s with the hammer down on the 30th anniversary of Guitar Town. Earle and band walked out onto the Holy Heart Auditorium stage at 8pm sharp to a roar from the audience as ushers’ flashlights reached into the aisles to assist flustered latecomers shuffling into their seats. Standing as bold, straight, and confident as he did in that now-iconic 1986 video for the title track, Earle strummed the unmistakable chugging opening G chord before singing that opening line of hillbilly testament: “Hey pretty baby are you ready for me, it’s your good rockin’ daddy down from Tennessee.” It’s what the crowd came to experience: a celebration of an album that still resonates with urgency and vitality. The Dukes kicked in with polished poise, sparking off what was to become a two-hour plus night of songwriting precision and performance. Earle’s voice is slightly more rough and gravelly than the original 1986 recording, but he has retained his signature tone and delivery with good pitch and volume. Both performer and audience have changed dramatically since that time, and Earle’s growth and metamorphosis as a songwriter throughout the decades is a testament to change as a very necessary element of life.
It is hard to believe that thirty years have passed since Nashville unleashed Steve Earle on a country music business that up until then typically featured stoic, motionless singers in polyester pants nodding into a camera on a TV show with wagon wheels and porch swings as stage props. Sure, we had Waylon and Willie to keep country honest; but we didn’t have anyone like Steve Earle: headband, jean tuxedo, bandanas wrapped around his wrists, broad-shouldered, fresh-faced, mean. Looking over his shoulder into the camera on the cover of that first album, we see a young man with both confident vision and guarded apprehension in his expression, foreshadowing the turmoil that would follow in the wake of his enormous success.
Earle entered the mainstream in his early 30s after ten years or more plugging away in Nashville as a songwriter in a city with thousands of others doing the exact same thing. Earle was personally mentored by his unsung heroes Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, giving him a unique edge and contributing to his originality as a songwriter and performer. Coming of age in the MTV generation, Earle’s rebel image was solidified worldwide in those early videos for “Guitar Town” and “I Ain’t Satisfied.” The left-leaning Steve Earle was not even on the horizon at this point and could hardly have been imagined. We still had a southern-tinged hillbilly star whose thoughtful, yet conservative lyrics leaned to the right while flipping the finger to the establishment. However, what truly set Earle aside from his peers was his potent mixture of country and pop. His verses were country, but his bridges were The Beatles. His guitars were country, but his drums were rock and roll. This sound propelled the country genre forward and influenced its growth in ways that were felt like an earthquake through the business as it rolled on into the unsteady ‘90s.
Besides his inaugural visit in 1989 during the Copperhead Road tour, Earle’s previous concerts in St. John’s have primarily featured material from his second coming as a politically-charged liberal intellectual whose lyrical themes leaned so far to the left that you’d swear the guy who put out that string of hits in the ‘80s was a historical imposter. Old favourites were played almost begrudgingly out of necessity to feed the hunger of an audience that wanted to be respectful of Earle’s songwriting talents yet yearned for the irresistible nature of the hits from his lean and hungry years. It’s a struggle that many music icons face, trying to make the new creativity matter while acknowledging what gave them the platform in the first place. On this tour, however, there is little confusion on material. The audience knows that it is getting Guitar Town in its entirety, and that alone is enough to push theatres to capacity. Earle’s delivery of this material feels fresh and renewed. His stories about the inception of the album reflect a sense of respect for what it’s become in the history of popular music. Acknowledging Nashville icon producer Richard Bennett as a key force in the making of the album, Earle reminisced about spending days in L.A. at Bennett’s place writing songs for the album and cutting demos for the later Nashville master sessions. Earle makes no effort to explain or highlight the differences between who he was then and who he is now, which is in keeping with a tendency to always be moving forward, both creatively and personally.
Earle and the Dukes made their way faithfully through Guitar Town, following the original track sequence. Houston guitarist Chris Masterson nailed the Telecaster intro to “Getting Tough” while Earle sang those eerie opening lines: “I got a job but it ain’t nearly enough, $20,000 pickup truck, belongs to me and the bank and some funny-talkin’ man from Iran.” These lines bear little resemblance to where Earle has gone politically since then. In the chorus, he claims that “nowadays it just don’t pay to be a good old boy.” Even more poignant is this line in relation to Trump’s victory Tuesday night. Cynically, perhaps it does again pay to be a good old boy in the good old USA, although Earle mentioned later in the night as an intro to “Devil’s Right Hand” that if he’d been in America Tuesday night he’d have shot himself in the head.
Making their way through Guitar Town from start to finish, Steve Earle and The Dukes overcame some technical issues such as bad guitar cables and assorted extraneous noise to deliver a set of songs that resonated with an almost fevered sense of excitement. People sang every line of even the deepest cuts, displaying their affinity and familiarity with each groove from that record. Of course Earle and band had to endure a few drunks in the balcony shouting for “Galway Girl,” a song that Newfoundlanders have adopted as their own and subsequently played into annoying ubiquity. (They later got their wish, as Earle played it proudly and faithfully in the second set.)
After a short intermission, songwriter and band returned for a second spirited set of classics from the Steve Earle catalogue: “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied,” “Copperhead Road,” “Devil’s Right Hand,” “The Revolution Starts Now,” “Johnny Come Lately,” and more. Earle’s latest incarnation of The Dukes features long-time bassist Kelly Looney, guitarist Chris Masterson, Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle, Chris Clarke on keys and steel, and newcomer Brad Pemberton from Ryan Adams’ Cardinals on drums. All skilled veterans, the sound was dead-on with a mixture of faithful accuracy to the hits and explorative musicality unique to this particular combination of musicians. Earle appears to be a generous bandleader who is less interested in micromanaging than he is melding with them as a fellow musician.
Toward the end of the show, Earle put on a Telecaster and played it very loud and proud until his final bow. I will avoid going into specifics about the encore in consideration of those going tonight, but let’s just say you’ll leave the venue sufficiently rocked after a full dose of Guitar Town and another full set of Steve Earle classics. If there’s ever a time to go see Steve Earle, this is the tour to take the plunge.