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Copperhead Road (Deluxe Edition)

Steve Earle

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Album Review

Steve Earle and Nashville had had just about enough of one another once it came time for him to cut his third album in 1988. Earle's first two albums, Guitar Town and Exit 0, had sold well and earned enthusiastic reviews, but his stubborn refusal to make nice, his desire to make more rock-influenced albums, and the faint but clear Leftism in his populist lyrical stance made him no friends at MCA's Nashville offices, and his growing dependence on heroin didn't help matters one bit. Earle was moved to MCA's Los Angeles-based Uni imprint, and he headed to Memphis to cut his third album, Copperhead Road. The result improbably became one of Earle's strongest albums; between its big drum sound, arena-sized guitars, and a swagger that owed more to the Rolling Stones and Guns N' Roses than country's New Traditionalists, Copperhead Road was the unabashed rock & roll album Earle had long threatened to make, but his attitude and personality were strong enough to handle the oversized production, and the songs showed that for all the aural firepower, this was still the same down-home troublemaker from Earle's first two albums. The moonshiner's tale of the title cut, the gunfighter's saga of "The Devil's Right Hand," and the story of two generations of soldiers in "Johnny Come Lately" (with the Pogues sitting in as Earle's backing band) were all tough but compelling narratives rooted in country tradition, and their rock moves updated them without robbing them of their power. And if the songs about love that dominate the album's second half don't have the same immediate impact, "Even When I'm Blue," "You Belong to Me," and "Once You Love" are honest and absorbing reflections of the heart of this dysfunctional romantic. Copperhead Road's production, which occasionally borders on hair metal territory, dates it, but the fire of Earle's performances and the strength of the songs more than compensates, and this album still connects 20 years on: if he had been able to hold himself together and make a few more records this strong, it's hard to imagine how big a star he could have become. [In 2008, Geffen reissued Copperhead Road in a two-disc "Deluxe Edition." The original album appears in remastered form on disc one, and the audio sounds crisp and resonant, though the added clarity sometimes makes the drum mix seem even more bombastic than before. Disc two is dominated by 11 songs from a rowdy live show Earle and his band the Dukes played in North Carolina in the fall of 1987; he was touring in support of Exit 0 at the time and only one tune from Copperhead Road makes the set, but both Earle and his audience seem to be having a bang-up time, and if the performance is a wee bit sloppy, it's spirited fun. Six other live cuts from 1988 and 1989 round out the disc, and while they don't match the energy of the North Carolina gig, Earle's covers of Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" and the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers" will go over big with his fans. Add a literate liner essay from Chris Morris and you get that rarity, an expanded reissue that actually adds something worthwhile to an album of note.

Biography

Born: January 17, 1955 in Fort Monroe, VA

Genre: Country

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

In the strictest sense, Steve Earle isn't a country artist; he's a roots rocker. Earle emerged in the mid-'80s, after Bruce Springsteen had popularized populist rock & roll and Dwight Yoakam had kick-started the neo-traditionalist movement in country music. At first, Earle appeared to be more indebted to the rock side than country, as he played a stripped-down, neo-rockabilly style that occasionally verged on outlaw country. However, his unwillingness to conform to the rules of Nashville or rock...
Full bio

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