Steve Earle’s “I Feel Alright”- The Greatest Album in Country History
Steve Earle has always had the unfortunate habit of flying under the radar to some who don’t live and breathe country music. When he appeared in Heartworn Highways, he was around Guy Clark and Townes van Zandt. When he released the iconic Guitar Town in the 1980s as his own spin on the traditional revival of country music, he was competing with legends Dwight Yoakam, Randy Travis, and George Strait. And in the 1990s and even today as his songwriting has somehow gotten even better, many in the Americana and Alternative Country worlds have turned to focus on younger acts.
Is it possible for Steve Earle, one of the greatest singer-songwriters that the music world has ever seen, to somehow be underrated? I’d say the answer is yes. Let’s face it. He never endeared himself to the country music establishment. He’s recorded country rock, bluegrass, straight rock and roll, folk, Americana, and outlaw country. No one could ever predict what Steve Earle was going to do next. The arrest on heroin and gun charges sure didn’t help. Fittingly, it wasn’t the country establishment who had Earle’s back; it was another Nashville renegade- ‘ol Waylon. Waylon wore a bandanna on his wrist during every show he played while Steve Earle sat in jail.
Steve Earle stared down his demons and survived to tell the tale. And out of it came the greatest record in the history of country music.
By the time Steve Earle recorded I Feel Alright, he had “been to hell and was back again” as he sang on the title track. The highs of his life were certainly high and the lows could not have gotten any lower.
When Earle first got to Nashville in the mid 1970s, he immediately became engulfed in the non-commercial side of Nashville, palling around with Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell- artists who focused on the crafting of a song and the art of storytelling.
Yet it would take Earle until the mid 1980s to finally hit it big. The marketed, commercial Urban Cowboy movement quickly lost momentum and around came George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, and Randy Travis as the first line of defense to preserve and advance the genre of country music in a respectful manner. Next came Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle, releasing their major label debuts within a week of each other in March 1986. Earle’s Guitar Town hearkened back to 60s twang with intelligent, clever songwriting but with one foot planted firmly in the future of the genre. It also kicked off a sensational run of albums for the renegade artist. Exit 0, Copperhead Road, and The Hard Way all were a fresh, unique spin on country music. Some leaned more to rock, some leaned more to Guitar Town. But I’d challenge anyone to find an artist with a more brilliant start to his career than with those four albums.
By the early 1990s, however, the outlaw troubadour was hitting rock bottom. He was spending time in South Nashville crack houses, frequently injecting heroin, and disappearing for a couple of days at a time. He was one of the biggest stars in music in the 1980s, appealing to both country and rock fans. Now he found himself unable to even make shows and losing career opportunities.
Soon enough, Steve Earle was arrested on weapon and drug charges. He failed to appeal in court, turned himself in, and was sentenced to a year in jail. The jail time saved Earle. He went through the withdrawal that comes with extended heroin and cocaine use, was released after 60 days in jail, and entered rehab. He’s been clean ever since, allowing his past demons to heavily influence a lot of his songwriting.
Earle released Train a Comin’ in 1995 to rave reviews. He addressed his past troubles head-on, letting his songwriting do the talking. But it was Earle’s 1996 release I Feel Alright that came to define his modern sound and direction.
I Feel Alright, in my opinion, is one of the greatest albums in country history, and I have no problem labeling it the best. From heartbreak to ramblin’ to recovery from addiction, the album has it all. It addresses topics that many artists were too afraid to broach- the dark corners of the mind and heart that lay beyond the commercial and popular. Much of the material is autobiographical. I suppose when you’ve been as low as Steve Earle has been, it’s no problem to just lay it all out for an audience to hear.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a concept album, but I Feel Alright certainly has a definite feel to it. It’s looking forward while acknowledging the mistakes Earle has made. It’s optimistic but real. Steve Earle beat his drug addiction- but he knows that hard path that’s to come. Simply put, the album is a masterpiece- a magnum opus of his career.
The actual sound of the album leans more toward Guitar Town than Copperhead Road. It’s still rocking, but in a more rootsy, country way. “Poor Boy” could’ve easily been a cut on Guitar Town and fits the theme of Guitar Town cuts “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)” and “Hillbilly Highway.”
Yet most of the album is unique in the fact that it cannot be actually pigeonholed. The title track is a defiant statement of Earle’s return to music. He’s been down to the bottom, he’s back. And you better not get in his way. “The Unrepentant” is a likewise full-bore rocker of a song. Earle sings about a man who isn’t going to compromise, isn’t going to make excuses, and is going to stare down the Devil with a .44. Yeah, Steve Earle was back as soon as he recorded this album
But not all of the songs were optimistic looks into the future. “Valentine’s Day” is absolutely heart-wrenching with its sparse instrumentation and lonesome lyrics. “More Than I Can Do” and “Hurtin’ Me, Hurtin’ You” are both a little more upbeat in their sound but no less devastating in their lyrics. All three songs can be interpreted to the hurt Earle felt and gave during his addiction days.
“South Nashville Blues” is a stand-out track. Purely autobiographical, “South Nashville Blues” mentions some of the topics I wrote about above- Nashville crack houses, guns, and addiction. “The Devil lives on Lewis Street, I swear,” Earle sings. Lewis Street was, and is, still one of the single-most dangerous areas in all of Nashville- a place Earle likely went to procure drugs during his addiction.
Likewise, “CCKMP” is a rootsy, sparse look at the struggles Steve Earle faced during his heroin addiction. Cocaine, whiskey, women…nothing other than heroin could satisfy the pain Earle was putting himself through.
“Hard-Core Troubadour” hearkens back to Earle’s Guitar Town days with *that* guitar sound and lyrics that are a bit braggadocious and badass.
I saved these two songs for last- “Billy and Bonnie” and “You’re Still Standing There.” “Billy and Bonnie” is a great story song that Townes or Guy would’ve been proud of. Their influence here is strong, and the last line, "I'll see you down in hell when your time runs out," is one of my favorite lines ever. If I had to recommend a song to someone who’s never really listened to Steve Earle before, “Billy and Bonnie” would be near the top.
Fittingly, the last song of the album is the last song I have to talk about. “You’re Still Standing There” features the brilliant, country as hell vocals of Lucinda Williams. Opening with some fantastic harp work, I like to think Steve Earle is singing about the one’s that stuck by his side while the Establishment deserted him. It’s a beautiful song and can be interpreted many ways- with the duet of Williams and Earle, it can easily be a love song. The two alt-country legends melt their voices together in a truly moving way.
All I can say now is…go listen to this album. You may have listened to it, you may not have. But take an hour and put this album on your speaker or headphones. Consider all Steve Earle went through. Take a moment to appreciate what he’s contributed to the music world. His songs have been covered by everyone from Waylon to Mumford & Sons to Emmylou Harris. He’s one of the greatest country songwriters of all-time, right up there with Townes, Guy Clark, and Kristofferson.
Steve Earle has lived a hell of a life. He’s been to Hell and back. But he’s still back again.