Steve Earle, "The Warner Bros. Years." In December 1994, Steve Earle got out of jail -- and drug treatment. In January, he went into the studio to record his first songs in four years.
The result was “Train A’ Comin’,” a 1995 acoustic album that was released on Warner Brothers Records. A year later, the clean, sober and newly prolific Earle cranked up the guitars for the harder rockin’ “I Feel Alright.” In 1997 came “El Corozon,” a collection that includes some fine songs and a political edge that has come to be central in his work.
Those albums, however, are underappreciated, especially in comparison with Earle’s first three discs and his more recent, Grammy Award-winning efforts.
Now, with “The Warner Bros. Years,” a five-disc set, the trio of post-prison 1990s recordings should get the attention they've long deserved.
Far from being minor Earle, the Warner albums are strong, varied discs that reflect a flood of artistic productivity and experimentation and mark the second act for one of our most passionate, perceptive songwriters and performers, and a man, in full disclosure, I’ve called a friend since the 1980s.
In fact, “I Feel Alright” has long been one of my favorite Earle records, for its signature songs (the title cut and “Hard-Core Troubadour"), its quieter moments, its look at the drug world (“CCKMP,” code for cocaine can’t kill my pain, and “South Nashville Blues”) and its character studies.
With its Woody Guthrie tribute “Christmas in Washington” and gems like “Telephone Road” and “Fort Worth Blues,” “El Corazon” is a record that resonates more and more each time it's heard -- something that pops up listening to it 16 years later.
The Shout! Factory package also includes a pair of live recordings -- both previously unissued. The live CD was recorded with the fine “Train A Comin’” band at Nashville’s Polk Theater in December 1995. The DVD, titled “To Hell and Back,” was recorded a year later, appropriately at Tennessee’s Cold Creek Correctional Facility.
The latter is a bracing set that ends with edgy, powerful back-to-back versions of “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road” and closes by tearing up Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”
The live recordings make “The Warner Bros. Years” a must-have for Earle fans who may already have the three albums. For those who don’t, the package brings Earle’s mid-period into sharp focus, bringing back music that should be heard and stands with the best work he’s done. Grade: A