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Train a Comin'

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Album Review

To say Steve Earle had career problems in 1994 when he recorded Train a Comin' is something more than an understatement. Earle's life went into a dramatic tailspin thanks to a voracious drug habit after he parted ways with MCA in 1991, and he ended up spending a few months in jail on drug and weapons charges in 1993. Earle thankfully got treatment for his addictions while behind bars, and was clean and sober for the first time in many years when he scored a deal with a tiny independent label, Winter Harvest Records, and cut an acoustic album called Train a Comin'. Considering how low Earle had sunk, it was a pleasant shock that Train a Comin' was not only good, it was one of the strongest albums of his career to date. Dominated by songs he's written years before along with a few new tunes and some well-chosen covers, Train a Comin' featured Earle with a small group of gifted acoustic pickers, including Norman Blake, Peter Rowan, and Roy Huskey, Jr., and the tone of these sessions is at once relaxed and committed, sounding like a back porch guitar pull with a seriously talented guy handling the lead vocals and calling out the tunes. Earle's experiences with the judicial system hadn't exactly improved his voice, but he's in far more potent form than he had been on 1991's live set Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator, and his control and command of his instrument is genuinely impressive. Earle's natural cockiness works in his favor on these tunes, especially "Tom Ames' Prayer," "Hometown Blues," and "Angel Is the Devil," and his gift for telling a story is plainly evident on "Ben McCulloch" and a moving cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Tecumseh Valley." Train a Comin' is not an album that asks the audience to forgive Steve Earle for his sins; it's a document of an artist who after a season in hell has reclaimed his gift and is determined to put it to use, and after years of fighting Nashville to do things his own way, Earle resumed his career by following his own muse with eloquent simplicity, and Train a Comin' shows his instincts were entirely correct. [Winter Harvest's original release of Train a Comin' featured a sequence not approved by Earle, who reissued the album on his E Squared label with a different running order; some pressings of the E Square version also delete his cover of the Beatles' "I'm Looking Through You."]


Born: 17 January 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...
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