Steve Earle’s incredible career in music can be neatly separated into three sections.
There’s the early years, in the 1980s, when the Texas-raised troubadour was kickin’ up dust as Nashville’s outsider du jour. He sang outlaw country songs and lived a life to match ‘em, providing much-needed hard-edged contrast to Music City’s glitz.
Then there’s the 21st century. For many of the 17 years since Y2K, Earle’s career has felt stuck in one gear. His songs are reliably solid, and he’s taken on some interesting projects—a tribute to Townes Van Zandt, a collaboration with Shawn Colvin—but the dizzying heights of songcraft he once scaled don’t seem to come along as frequently as they once did.
And that leaves us with a gap from about 1990 to 2000, the first half of which Earle spent battling drug addiction and legal troubles. During the second half of that decade, however, Earle went on one of the hottest album streaks in recent history. Armed with new experiences and new perspective, he wrote, recorded and released nothing but folk-rock bangers from 1995’s Train a Comin’ to 2000’s Transcendental Blues.
In between came 1996’s I Feel Alright, 1997’s El Corazón and 1999’s The Mountain, a bluegrass collaboration with the Del McCoury Band. One could argue for any of them as the very tip-top of Earle’s peak period, and they wouldn’t be wrong.
But I’ll take El Corazón, released on vinyl for the first time on Black Friday. At 12 tracks and a fat-free 45 minutes long, it documents Earle not only at the height of his powers, but also at the golden point of his journey from left-of-center country-rock dude to enlightened cosmo-folk guru. I Feel Alright is ever so slight. Transcendental Blues meanders just a tad. El Corazón is just right.
Listening 20 years later, some of the Earle’s sentiments in the album’s political opener “Christmas in Washington”—foxes in the henhouse, “four more years of things not getting worse”—feel quite quaint in our current climate. But its juxtaposition of cleanly plucked acoustic guitar and wheezing harmonium is still comfort food for the ears.
From there, Earle takes off on a game of roots-centric stylistic pinball. “Taneytown” is a grimy rocker, with a creeping guitar lick that underpins a horror story of racism, violence and injustice. “The Other Side of Town” crackles and pops like it was imported from 1940s country radio. The amps get a workout on “N.Y.C.” (featuring The Supersuckers) and “Here I Am” (which basically sounds like Green Day gone cowpunk). And “I Still Carry You Around” is a credible trad-bluegrass burner, thanks to the gentle chop and high harmonies of the McCoury band.
When it’s time to sing about love, Earle sticks near his melodic-roots wheelhouse. “Somewhere Out There” longs for love. “If You Fall” warns against it. And “Poison Lovers” can’t escape it. Each of them jangle and crunch and soar, balancing the rest of El Corazón’s restlessness with some reliable romanticism.
The album’s most poignant moment, however, is its closer, “Ft. Worth Blues,” a tribute to Earle’s mentor, Townes Van Zandt, who died on the first day of 1997. Like “Christmas in Washington,” it pairs pretty fingerpicking with a quiet droning sound, as Earle sketches out a sort of posthumous travelogue for Townes. “Every place I travel through,” he drawls, “I find some kind of sign that you’ve been through.”
Someday someone will write a song like that for Steve Earle. And they’ll point to his output—especially those albums in the late ‘90s, like El Corazón—and they’ll say, “That guy was one of the best who ever did it.”