By the time Steve Earle released Train A Cominâ€™, he had flirted with disaster while addicted to heroin and had only recently been released from prison for drugs and weapons charges. And just as these struggles could have been a last call for a promising young songwriter, this album signaled the rebirth of one of todayâ€™s greatest songwriters.
The Warner Bros. Years celebrates Train A Cominâ€™, as well as subsequent classics I Feel Alright and El Corazon. This trio of releases captures a broad range of Earleâ€™s powers; the first sees him stripped down with some older compositions of his own, as well as covers of his influences, like Townes Van Zandt and The Beatles; the second boasts classics like the definitive â€œHardcore Troubadourâ€ and the reflective â€œSouth Nashville Bluesâ€; and the third documents a gradual move to bluegrass, and includes the classics â€œChristmas in Washingtonâ€ and â€œTaneytown.â€ And while plenty has been written about these albums â€“ both in the mid-â€˜90s when they were released and today, with this collection â€“ it is the two live documents found in this four CD/one DVD box set that are truly spectacular.
Starting off with Live at the Polk Theater, recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, in December 1995, Earle â€“ joined by Peter Rowan, Norman Blake, Roy Husky Jr., Bill Monroe, and Emmylou Harris â€“ displays the energy of a songwriter back in his ownÂ skin. The song selection is heavy on Train A Cominâ€™ compositions, with a little Copperhead Road sprinkled in, and it works just fine. There is an audible excitement among the players, making this a top-notch performance that is seeing its first official release.
The DVD, To Hell and Back, documents a set played at Tennesseeâ€™s Cold Creek Correctional Facility in 1996. Backed by The Dukes (Mark Stuart, David Steele, Kelly Looney, and Custer), this show was a condition of Earleâ€™s parole, and the band plays a spirited set, which is interspersed with interviews with the songwriter as well as inmates at the facility. It adds the visual to this collection, and while not a home run, it rounds out this already-robust package.
The era of Steve Earleâ€™s career documented on The Warner Bros. Years isnâ€™t his best, but it is no less remarkable. It marks the return of a true â€œhardcore troubadourâ€ who has created one of the finest catalogues of American music in the 20th century.
The Warner Bros. Years is out now on Shout! Factory.