Monday, February 23, 2009

Classic Review- Copperhead Road

Despite its reviled status, country music has often been an influence on other, more respectable genres. Creedence, the Band, Tom Petty and others were nor afraid to get their twang on as part of the melting pot that made up their sound. All the time, however, disguised as folk or rock n roll.

Not so for Steve Earle, the refugee from Nashville who was too tough for the country music scene there. Even before he got addicted to heroin and became incredibly fat in the 1990s, he was a country artist who was too rock n roll. It’s a tough line to straddle. But in 1988, Earle got the balance right with his classic third album Copperhead Road. The fantastic cover with the sewn-on skull-and-crossbones logo first lets you know that you’re in for a treat.

It’s a brief album with few mis-steps. Earle has crafted a bunch of songs here that have the authenticity of age-old folksongs, each telling a tale, and each casting us into a world of weary gunslingers, hard-drinkin travellers and outlaw bootleggers. His distinctive drawl says he’s seen it all but never lost the urgency or belief in what he has to sing. Mixed in with these classic cowboy motifs are more-recent, then-contemporary issues- pot-smoking, oil-wars, and busted-down Vietnam vets (remember, this album was made a scant three years after John Rambo returned to the jungle to get those hostages). Earle blends these elements into the mix perfectly, making them seem epic, creating a kind of mythology out of the times he lived in as well as harking back to the past. He creates a time and place that you will want to learn more about (go rent Sling Blade, maybe).

Take the incredible title track Copperhead Road- even the name ‘copperhead’ is a kind of viper, because everything is badass in Steve Earle’s world. This song tells the tale of a family of self-described white trash bootleggers who ply their trade in rural Texas, and of their multiple scrapes with the authorities. In the climactic final verse, the youngest character returns from ‘Nam (the first of many references to this conflict) determined to grow pot, and is unworried about the authorities scouting out the area with helicopters. It turns out that he ‘learned a thing or two from Charlie’ during his years away, and so they’d ‘better stay away from Copperhead Road’. I’m not sure if he’s actually insinuating that he’s gonna take down the choppers with a bazooka or something, but it’s a great end to the song.

Earle does some unexpected things on this album- the bizarre use of bagpipes, or a collaboration with the Pogues (of all people!) but he never forgets to rock out, except of course when he’s opening his heart to us on a tender ballad, which he’s not afraid to do (because, as we know, every cowboy sings a sad, sad song). After you’ve listened to the album a bit, you’ll notice a strange thing- both the ballads and the country-rockers are, in a weird way, only a few steps away from 1980s cheese rock. Be it the arena-sized guitars or the song-writing itself, were it not for Earle’s southern drawl and the addition of some acoustic instruments, this could almost be a Poison album. If, that is, Poison ever dreamt of writing a song as masterful and foot-stomping as 'Devil’s Right Hand'.

Copperhead Road takes everything that is good about country music- the attitude, the big hats- and melds it to other styles that you probably have more respect for. Check it out.

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