On Steve Earle
's first major American tour following the release of his debut album, Guitar Town
found himself sharing a bill with Dwight Yoakam
one night and the Replacements
another, and one listen to the album explains why -- while the music was country through and through, Earle
showed off enough swagger and attitude to intimidate anyone short of Keith Richards
. While Earle
's songs bore a certain resemblance to the Texas outlaw ethos (think Waylon Jennings
in "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean" mode), they displayed a literate anger and street-smart snarl that set him apart from the typical Music Row hack, and no one in Nashville in 1986 was able (or willing) to write anything like the title song, a hilarious and harrowing tale of life on the road ("Well, I gotta keep rockin' while I still can/Got a two-pack habit and motel tan") or the bitterly unsentimental account of small-town life "Someday" ("You go to school, where you learn to read and write/So you can walk into the county bank and sign away your life"), the latter of which may be the best Bruce Springsteen
song the Boss didn't write. And even when Earle
gets a bit teary-eyed on "My Old Friend the Blues" and "Little Rock 'n' Roller," he showed off a battle-scarred heart that was tougher and harder-edged than most of his competition. Guitar Town
is slightly flawed by an overly tidy production from Emory Gordy, Jr.
, and Tony Brown
as well as a band that never hit quite as hard as Earle
's voice, and he would make many stronger and more ambitious records in the future, but Guitar Town
was his first shot at showing a major audience what he could do, and he hit a bull's-eye -- it's perhaps the strongest and most confident debut album any country act released in the 1980s.