Part 3 in a series of posts in which I go through my choices for the best, most representative (or most anomalous) records of the 1980s. Here’s Steve Earle’s Guitar Town from 1986…
Don’t mistake this album as polished good ol’ boy rockin’, twangin’ country made for hicks. Though it’s production is sharp and glossy (it was among the first entirely digitally recorded country albums), Steve Earle himself isn’t polished, and the stories he tells aren’t romanticized. He manages to subtly pack a significant amount of American myth and character into these simple songs. He disguises them as good-timey patriotism songs, but sneaks in his own razor-sharp statements on Reagan’s America under the guise of the Southern characters he sings as, whom are portrayed with equal parts wry mockery and affection:
Just my luck
I was born in the land of plenty now there ain’t enough
I’ve been told
Nowadays it just don’t pay to be a good ol’ boy
Guitar Town, the title track, opens this LP with vigour; a love letter to life as a travelling musician, that goes through the rough times, the cheap Japanese guitars and the timeless highway spirit. Earle gets a little sentimental with My Old Friend the Blues, one of the only weak points of the experience, though I commend that he approaches it with a genuine blues attitude as opposed to the treacly, bittersweet whine of a Nashville country ballad.
It acts as part of 3 popular albums that I see as a trilogy of ‘heartland rock’ in the 80s; calls to arms for solidarity among simple folk and an older, honest vision of America in reaction to Reagan’s decade and increasing globalization and industrialism: Springsteen’s Born in the USA (1984), John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow (1985), and the album in question. While Guitar Town may not be the most fist-pumpingly arresting, it stands as the dark horse in this trio, and one of the most overlooked of its era.
8 Hillbilly Highways out of 10
Some great guitar hooks as well.