Friday, May 25, 2007

Steve Earle (1996)

The second outstanding recommendation of 1996 was Jud's suggestion that I check out I Feel Alright. We were hanging out before or after a Varnaline show at TT the Bear's. He also recommended Colossal Head by Los Lobos that night, and both albums placed in my top ten that year, but the Steve Earle recommendation would prove to much more significant.

I've considered Neil Young to be the king of my musical world since the early 90's, but in the late 90's and early 00's, I frequently pondered the question of who played second fiddle. There are a few others who first came to mind when I would think about this, including Jay Farrar and a certain former alt-country icon turned indie singer-songwriter known as much for his spoiled brat attitude as anything else (more on him later), but shortly after the release of 2000's Transcendental Blues, I decided that Earle was the unsung hero in this discussion. He's since fallen from this perch, but he's still among just a handful of artists whom I've considered my second favorite. I rarely ever bother to consider this question anymore.

I Feel Alright would also introduce me to Lucinda Williams, on the amazing duet "You're Still Standing There", and it would also kick off a run of four consecutive albums by Earle that would land in my top ten. I'm pretty sure this is a record, although my taste was pretty narrowly focused during those years. All four of these albums, the aforementioned I Feel Alright and Transcendental Blues, as well as 1997's El Corazon and 1999's The Mountain (on which Earle collaborated with The Del McCoury Band) would take their turns at being my favorite album of his.

In 1999, on his tour with The Del McCoury Band, Len and I wore our Varnaline t-shirts to his show at the Somerville Theatre, for which we had seats in the second row but to the right of center stage. I had previously read an interview with Earle in which he stated that the two bands he most wanted to sign to his E-Squared label were Marah and Varnaline. He had already signed Marah, so we thought we would subtly advocate for Varnaline. I don't think he looked at us once. A week later, I saw him up close at the Newport Folk Festival. He was playing the main stage, but was hanging out talking and signing autographs for people near the side stage where his younger sister, Stacey, was playing. I didn't have my Varnaline shirt on, but Anders didn't need my support anyway, because he would eventually sign with Earle's label.

Scott's younger brother, Eric, came to the Somerville Theatre show with us. We had an extra ticket, so I called him fairly last minute and he came up from Plymouth on the Commuter Rail/Red line. He was in his late teens, but he still seemed psyched to be going to a show in a hip neighborhood with two of his older brother's best friends. This is one of my top three favorite Eric moments. The other two being when he signed the thank you card he sent me for his high school graduation gift, "the younger brother you wish you had", and when, at age three, he was convinced my name was Bruce because that's what we all called each other back then. This, of course, was in reference to a Monty Python skit. Despite the fact that everyone was Bruce in our small circle, I was the only Bruce to Eric and when someone called me Dan, he spoke up by saying, "That's not Dan! It's Bruce!" Scott and I are the only ones from that group who still call each other Bruce to this day.

Anyone who knows a little something about Steve Earle knows he is a man of conviction. His political stances are fairly well documented and often provide the subject matter for his songs. However, I'm not going to discuss Earle's politics here, but I will commend him for one particular event that comes to mind. Scott, his girlfriend Sarah, Len and I had tickets to see him at Pearl Street in Northampton several years ago. Two or three songs into his headlining set, he stopped and said he couldn't continue. He was having problems with his voice and was unwilling to mail it in with a performance that didn't measure up to his high standards.

Everyone would get a full refund, less Ticketmaster charges of course, despite the fact that the opening act, Garrison Starr, had played a full set, so I'm sure that Earle ended up having to pay her. I'm not sure how much money he lost by not performing that night, but I'd definitely seen Jeff Tweedy endure voice-related problems at least twice and think nothing of it. Maybe this isn't such a big deal, but it proves to me that the Hard-Core Troubadour is a standup guy, and someone I still admire.

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