The story of Steve Earle’s Guitar Town reads like a Hollywood screenplay. After a decade of kicking around Nashville with little-to-no success, a rough-around-the-edges 31-year-old singer/songwriter finally finds his voice and takes a set of heart-on-sleeve songs to the top of the country charts. There’s a supporting cast: Noel Fox, the man who offered Earle a publishing contract after his early singles flopped. There’s Tony Brown and Emory Gordy, early allies who signed Earle to MCA and fought to keep his rough edges intact. There’s even an antagonist, Jimmy Bowen, the by-the-book label boss who fought just as hard to keep Earle off MCA and tried to undermine his success. Add in the beginnings of what would become a hellacious heroin addiction and the mounting pressures of fatherhood, and you have the makings of a great American drama. That was Steve Earle’s life.
Listening to Guitar Town 30 years later, it’s not difficult to understand how its blue-collar anthems could resonate so deeply with listeners, but it’s still hard to believe they actually got that chance. In the spring of 1986, Earle was a loud, liberal, longhaired contrarian crashing into Nashville’s living room and putting his dirty cowboy boots on the sofa. There was simply no precedent for an album like Guitar Town getting very far on country radio. With no songs about drinking and cheating, and scarcely any love songs, it was an outlier among outliers.
Instead, there were songs about small town despair (“Someday”), the post-WWII northern migration of Southerners looking for work (“Hillbilly Highway”), and the death of the American dream (“Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)”). There were anthems romanticizing the restlessness of a fledging musician (“Guitar Town”) and ballads about how life on the road keeps you away from the ones you love (“Little Rock ‘n’ Roller”). The guitars rumbled and twanged, Earle honked and hiccupped, and his hooks cut with desperate precision. With Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis about to release their first albums in the coming months, there was a neo-traditionalist movement afoot, but Earle was always going to be an uncomfortable fit for Nashville. Any artist who could open for George Jones one week and the Replacements the next—as Earle did while promoting Guitar Town—wasn’t going to fit neatly into any genre.
Today, as he begins to promote a collaborative album with Shawn Colvin, Earle remains the same stubbornly idiosyncratic artist he was then. He never again made much of a dent in the country charts, but it’s now clear that if he lost the battle he ultimately won the war. The little blast of rock and roll populism that Guitar Town pushed into the country music lexicon continues to reverberate through the writing of Chris Stapleton, Eric Church and just about every artist who has carried the “alternative country” mantle over the last 20 years. The album that managed to overcome long odds saved its biggest surprise for last: it sounds just as good—and just as relevant—now as it did the day it was released.
: When you think back to writing the songs on Guitar Town, did you have a vision for it from the start?
Steve Earle: I saw Bruce Springsteen on the Born in the U.S.A. tour, and I had just been dropped by Epic. Bruce came out and opened with “Born in the U.S.A.” and three hours later I walked out and knew what I needed to do. I wrote “Guitar Town” the next day, and I wrote it to open the record and open the show. I didn’t even think about it in terms of a single. In fact, it surprised me, because I had such a focused idea of that song and what it did and was supposed to do that I never thought about it as something for the radio, necessarily. I thought about it as the opening song for a live performance and on a record. So I wrote that, and I wrote “Down the Road” a few days later to close the record, and then all I had to do was fill in the space in between [Laughs]. I had some good [unrecorded songs]. “The Devil’s Right Hand” had already existed. “Ben McCullough” already existed. “Tom Ames’ Prayer” existed. “Sometimes She Forgets” already existed. Some really good songs. But I just wanted to write a record that hung together. It’s a concept record to a certain extent. And I also wanted to prove that I could do it, just write the whole thing at once. I didn’t worry about the sophomore slump when it came time for the second record, because I had written the first record in seven or eight months. So by the time I had the writing finished, I had a record deal and went in and recorded it. And it shocked everybody.
We put out “Hillbilly Highway” first, and that got into the 30s or something [on the country charts], which was the best I’d ever done. I was pretty happy about that. But Jimmy Bowen, who ran the label [MCA], didn’t really want me on the label in the first place. Basically, he told Tony Brown and Emory Gordy, “Okay, you guys can sign anyone that you want.” Tony and Emory said, “We want to sign Steve Earle,” and he said, “Anybody but Steve Earle,” because I was pretty much damaged goods around town. So he made me go and do a demo, and we went out to the Oak Ridge Boys’ studio because we could get in for free, in Hendersonville. So we recorded a version of “Good Ol’ Boys,” and—they didn’t tell me this—but [Bowen] told them to prove to him that I could sing. So I went in, and they worked really hard on my vocals, and we comped them together and made sure the pitch was good. This was before you could tune and stuff. And Bowen grudgingly let them sign me. So we made the record, and it got all this attention from outside of country music, but it was, indeed, a No. 1 country album, which shocked me more than anybody. One night at Park West in Chicago, very early in that tour, we played every song we knew, and I finally went out for the third encore with just a guitar. I realized that night that my dreams had come true. I was 31 years old and had been in Nashville since I was 19.
: You said you were damaged goods before Guitar Town. How had you acquired that reputation?
Earle: I’d just been in town for a long time and never had a big hit record with anything that I wrote. I had one chart record—a Johnny Lee record, which had the dubious distinction of being the first Johnny Lee record that didn’t go to No. 1. I had been around a long time. I had been Guy Clark’s bass player, so I wrote for the same publishing company that he did. I had done demos for record deals, and by that time I had had a record deal and had released a couple of singles, and they had failed. In fact, the last recording I did before Guitar Town, I made an album and put out two singles for Epic. They didn’t do well, so they made me shelve that record and then put me in with Emory Gordy in a bigger band to get me out of the rockabilly trio thing. And I had lost confidence in my songs by that time. But Noel Fox at Silverline restored my faith in myself as a songwriter, and Guitar Town was the result.
: If Guitar Town hadn’t broken through, could you have been at the point where you would have quit trying to make it as a songwriter?
Earle: No. Justin was born in ’82, so if I was going to quit it would have been the first year after he was born. Some people would think I should be ashamed of that, because Justin was raised for the first three years of his life on food stamps and government cheese. I met Townes Van Zandt when I was 17 years old, and I knew that whatever the problems that Townes had were, he wasn’t bigger because he was a misunderstood genius. He wasn’t bigger because he had a really bad problem with alcohol and some other mental health issues, and he shot himself in the foot every chance that he got. But I also knew that I was looking at someone who was committed to making art no matter what, and he was not doing it for the money. That’s what I wanted to be.
: So when you were writing the songs for Guitar Town did you have any expectations that this could be your breakthrough?
Earle: No. It was one of those things where I was just afraid to think about it too much. I was getting to make a record, and I knew something was happening that was different from anything I had ever done. I felt present. All the other stuff where I’d done songs that had a little bit more scope, the instrumentation had gotten away from me. It always seemed slick to me. Richard Bennett, who was the guitar player and is listed as the associate producer, he and I actually did the arrangements before Emory and Tony heard any of it. And we wrote some of the songs together. So I was working with people who really believed I was talented and were trying to give me the best shot I could get without changing me. I knew that, and I felt like, “Okay, this is right. This is the way the art part of it is supposed to be.” And then I went on the road, and I’ve been on the road ever since [Laughs].
: When you were making Guitar Town, did you think you were making a country record?
Earle: I was making it to be a country record. I knew better than to try to make a rock record in Nashville, coming from Nashville. Great rock records had been made there; Blonde on Blonde was made there. Second Winter was made there. But I think I did consciously decide that maybe I could make a better rock and roll record by making the best country record that I could make at that point in the business and in my life as an artist. I was conscious of that fact. But I did think that I was part of some sort of reboot that was paying attention to the things that I liked about country music. I had been there a long time, and I knew what I liked about country music and what I didn’t.
I grew up in Texas. But I’m a folk singer. And I think Johnny Cash was a folk singer, too. He fought really hard to keep country music on his television show. But that was the fight that had to be fought. They didn’t bother him about putting pop acts on. But I think the best country singers are folk singers, and it’s the same thing. I think that’s why it worked. It rang true because it was me singing about myself and my life. I wrote “Little Rock and Roller,” and Johnny Cash came up to me and talked to me about that song at a benefit that we did after Guitar Town came out. And I had truck drivers come up to me and talk about that song. It didn’t matter if you were in the music business or if you were a truck driver or a traveling salesman, if you traveled for a living, you missed your kids and you can relate to that song. That’s what the job is. To make it real, it has to be stuff that you have some experience [with]. You have to have some skin in the game. People don’t really give a fuck about what bums you out. They care about what they have in common with your experience. That’s where an audience comes from. And I just sort of stumbled into that when I started writing this personal record about me and who I was. People don’t want to hear about you feeling sorry about yourself because you’re riding around in a bus that costs more than their house. But they’re okay with you feeling sorry for yourself because you miss your kids.
: Listening to that record today, it’s hard to think of anything that came out in that time period that sounds much like that album.
Earle: No. It was weird. It’s a lot of things I hate. It’s a digital record from the ground up. It was recorded on the old Mitsubishi recorders, but it kind of works. I don’t know why. It’s pretty slick by today’s standards, but it’s also the arrangements and the songs themselves. There weren’t many people in country music who were writing that way. I’ve heard Kris [Kristofferson] bemoan the fact that he was responsible for a lot of bad songs that were about sex on country music radio, because he wrote “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” He raised the rating to at least PG, but he did it really artfully. A lot of songwriters who were nowhere near his fucking equal went back and tried to do it, and the next thing you get is “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On.” But it’s a business, and the best things in country music have always come from the same place where great rock and roll and great folk music comes from.
Johnny Cash was pretty real. And Kris Kristofferson was pretty real. And Hank Williams was really real, and he wrote his own songs. He didn’t get along with Nashville all that well. Cash never did. Merle Haggard just died, and I don’t think he ever could have been Merle Haggard in Nashville. I think if he hadn’t lived in California he would have been a completely different animal. We are all going through writing and communicating with each other about how this is a big hole in our world, Merle Haggard going away, not just for country but for songwriters, in general. He was a big deal. He wrote way more No. 1 songs than Willie Nelson, and it was Willie I heard say that. Way more than Kris. And he recorded them all himself.
: It’s easy to hear a lot of struggle in the songs on Guitar Town, like in “Someday” or “Good Ol’ Boy.” It sounds like they were written by someone living through that kind of situation.
Earle: It does, but I was also writing about people that I saw. “Someday” is about a kid that I saw when my band was just about out of gas, and I finally found a gas station open in the middle of fucking nowhere between Nashville and Memphis, coming up from the south on a state highway. I saw this kid. He was just working the night shift at this gas station, and what he was doing was working on his own car when we pulled up. And we had to honk the horn to try and find him and get him to unlock the pump. It turned out he was working the night shift, and it was like a throwback to the ‘50s. This was probably 1984, and I didn’t write the song until 1985.
: How about “Good Ol’ Boy”?
Earle: That’s pretty classic. That’s not me or even close to me, but I knew that there were people—and some of them were people I was related to by blood, like where my dad grew up in northeast Texas—that didn’t understand what was happening to them in the Reagan era. And they probably voted for Reagan. But manufacturing jobs—we were starting to wake up to the fact that those jobs were going and, for all practical purposes, were gone. I was trying to put myself in someone else’s shoes. My experience enters into it, but there was somebody writing for The Boston Phoenix who wrote a review of Guitar Town that was scathing. It was the only negative review that I ever saw. And it was because he perceived me to be some sort of proto-Toby Keith or something, because of what that song says. I think I may have been a little ham-handed; I wasn’t as good of a writer as I am now. But I was doing it on purpose, like, “That person is not me. That person is someone who works for a living and doesn’t necessarily like what they do.”
: It’s interesting to listen to “Good Ol’ Boy” today and think about the line “I was born in the land of plenty and now there ain’t enough.” That could practically be Bernie Sanders’ campaign song.
Earle: It was the first line written, too, basically. It was a guitar riff of Richard Bennett’s. I don’t know where it came from. I was just trying to write country songs, but they weren’t coming out as drinking and cheating songs. How many love songs are there? There’s “Fearless Heart.” There’s “Goodbye’s All We Have Left.” And the rest are other kinds of stuff. “Guitar Town” is something that I always want on all of my records since I wrote the first one: it’s a state-of-me song. It’s the most personal statement on the record, although it’s not strictly me, it says the most about who I was at the time. I had been playing music for a long time, and I hadn’t made a lot of money doing it. But I had determined I was going to keep doing it until I dropped. That’s pretty much all that song says. Whether anyone was interested or not, I’m not sure I cared. That’s why I think I was so shocked, because the statement was so personal. Connecting to audiences can be done a lot of ways, but it’s always more about them than it is about you. “The Galway Girl” is probably the song that I’ll be remembered for the longest by the largest number of people, just because of the way the Irish are about music. But they won’t remember it was by me. They’ll say it was an Irishman that wrote it. They say that about “Danny Boy” now, and it was an Englishman that wrote it. But it’s the stuff that people connect to—you can’t really predict exactly what it’s going to be. But the job is empathy. Audiences respond to people who they think give a fuck about them.
: So today when you hear people like Chris Stapleton mention you and Guitar Town as an influence, what do you think about that?
Earle: I haven’t read where he said that, but I saw Chris Stapleton and he’s really, really fucking good. He sings his ass off, he plays his ass off, and he writes really fucking good songs. The person who did tell me that that album is the reason they did what they did was Garth Brooks [laughs]. He opened for me once, a long time ago, on the Guitar Town tour. It was with whatever his band was in Stillwater, Oklahoma. I met him years later in an ASCAP party, and he told me I was the reason he came to Nashville. There were people that would come up and tell me that. Right after I got out of jail, I met Tim McGraw, and he walked up and introduced himself and said I was one the reasons he did what he did. It’s funny, because Copperhead Road gets played on country stations now, and they would not touch it when it came out. A lot has happened between now and then.
Country music now is hard for me to take, but it was always hard for me to listen to country radio. And it was always hard for me to listen to pop radio. Now country is basically hip hop for white people who are afraid of black people, but there are people who are really, really good. Chris Stapleton certainly is. And there are people who are real artists. Taylor Swift is the real deal. She’s a real singer/songwriter. I didn’t understand, because I don’t listen to country radio anymore. This last record  is a pop record, and those are collaborations because that’s how that kind of music is arrived at. I’ll be interested to see what her next record is like, but  is a really good record. But the records before that, I didn’t realize that and I started backtracking and listening to her records when I went to the Grammys the last time I was nominated, when The Civil Wars kicked my ass. I guess that was three or four years ago. “Mean” was out, and she opened the Grammys performance. And I got it. I went, “Oh, shit. She’s singing about something that happened to her, but she’s doing it in a way that this whole audience is open to her, because that happens to teenagers.” And that’s what this job is. It’s empathy.