For me, for a long time, Steve Earle was just what you’d put on when the jukebox didn’t have any Springsteen. He was just some shirtless scream-mumbler who liked leather motorcycle vests, and I didn’t really know much else about him. That changed when a friend of mine burned me a CD of his songs and let me borrow his Steve Earle biography. I spent that summer learning about Earle’s life and blasting the shrill keyboard bagpipes that open up **Copperhead Road** on repeat.
Steve Earle is known for songs like 2006’s “Ellis Unit One” (about the horrors of capital punishment). Or 1988’s “Devil’s Right Hand” (a cautionary narrative about gun culture). More recently, Earle released 2015’s “Mississippi, It’s Time” (about the Magnolia’s State’s continued endorsement of the Confederate flag).
He’s made important music on a professional level since 1975, when he was 20. He also played the character Waylon on **The Wire**.
As a fan of Steve Earle, you take the good with the bad. He might put out a few disappointing records, but then he’ll give you a song like 2017’s “Goodbye Michelangelo,” which knocks you in the center of your gut. And that goes for his personal life, too — he’s married and divorced seven times, twice to the same woman.
What I’m saying is he’s an original.
His latest 16-track whopper, **GUY**, is a tribute album that culls from the songs of his mentor Guy Clark. There’s a lot to love. After quitting smoking, Earle’s voice is in the best shape it’s been since 1993, and he uses it to power through a collection of smart character sketches, streetwise narratives and tear-in-your-beer weepers. It’s a stunning instance of an iconic songwriter re-interpreting his catalog. And there are many poignant moments to behold.
“I discovered how much I learned from him in making a record like this,” Earle says in a March **Rolling Stone** interview.
Take “Desperados Waiting on a Train.” In 1974, Earle sang background vocals for Clark on this song with Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Sammi Smith. Now, Clark is gone and Earle has stepped from the back of the stage and into the spotlight. And the perspective has shifted. Instead of hearing an earnest young speaker romanticizing about an old man’s past (“He's a drifter and a driller of oil wells / And an old school man of the world”), listeners get a neat summary of modern day Earle (“I looked up and he's pushin' 80 / And there's brown tobacco stains all down his chin / To me he's one of the heroes of this country / So why's he all dressed up like them old men?”).
Earle delivered a similar collection in 2009 featuring songs by Townes Van Zandt. Together, the two records provide a diptych of Earle’s formative years.
Fans of Earle will hear the significance of Guy’s influence throughout the new record. “That Old Time Feeling” seems a cousin to Earle’s “Valentine’s Day,” with a 6/8 lilt and a big confessional lyric. With a rollicking beat, “Out In The Parking Lot” mirrors the fire of Earle’s “I Feel Alright.” Hell, Earle’s “Taneytown” explicitly references Clark’s talking blues tune “The Randall Knife;” he brings the chain full-circle by including the song on **GUY**.
In some ways, it’s Earle’s best record to date. He sings Clark’s polished melodies with a tuneful assurance that’s often absent from his own work.
In the past few years, Earle has become a mentor himself. He’s opened Camp Copperhead, a songwriting incubator for up-and-coming musicians in upstate New York. He’s celebrated new artists like fellow Texas troubadour Kacey Musgraves. Indeed, despite his proclivity for telling haunting stories about his addiction and how it traumatized his kids, it would seem Steve Earle has turned into an unlikely patrician for left-of-the-dial country artists.
And as much as **GUY** points to his past, it also proves that Earle is still willing to change and grow. His youthful idealism may have faded, but he still has a few good rounds left in him. And maybe a few more wives, too.
What: Steve Earle & the Dukes
Where: The Senate, 1022 Senate St.
When: Thursday, May 16, 8 p.m.
With: The Mastersons
Price: $36-$46 ($39-$49 advance)
More: 803-252-9392, thesenatecolumbia.com