Guitar... x 2
OK I'M CHEATING here. Record Three is actually two records.
Which is not to say they are interchangeable, indistinct or somehow inseparable, because they are none of those things. The two releases simply roosted in my consciousness at precisely the same moment, establishing a nest among the ramshackle edifice of a university life rapidly approaching its inevitable endgame. Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam combined to offer guidance that did not include the words 'career path' or 'management training programme'. They poured through the door opened by the punk electricity of Jason & Co and blazed a welcome trail into a future that would come to be described in time by guitar and fiddle, banjo and mandolin, vocals and harmony.
The philosophical discourse of campus seminar and lecture simply could not compete. It did not mix quite as well with bourbon, with dive bars, with the dented, 4x4, orange and cream Plymouth Trailduster slowly rusting into its parking spot outside yet another subdivided, tumbledown house. This time complete with kitchen carved out of what was once a broom cupboard, a bathroom which more health-conscious visitors often felt compelled to clean on arrival, a bedroom furnished at garage sales and a mattress splayed across a sheet of plywood supported by five empty beerkegs.
In common with many young people of the time, the down-at-heel existence was largely play acting: a posturing, self-imposed statement of intent rather than any sort of socio-economic necessity, so waste no sympathy for my situation. Instead appreciate the milieu – the state of mind, the shifting sense of place and role, the uncertainty on the horizon – into which dropped Guitar Town and Guitars Cadillacs Etc Etc.
The new traditionalists, or new traditionals, or neotraditionalists, were a group of disparate musicians, largely solo, that featured arrangements based on classic country instruments topped by a vocal style more suited to the 1940s and 50s than the slick production values of the pop-country machine in Nashville. It grew in large part from the outlaw country movement of the 1970s and early 80s and incorporated musical styles including bluegrass, old-time and hillbilly. Leading adherents included Randy Travis, Iris DeMent, Keith Whitley and Rosanne Cash, among others. Online know-it-all Wikipedia, in a sentence of divine understatement, described the movement as being born 'as a reaction to the perceived blandness of the mainstream country music of the time'. Well, yeah.
Neotraditionalism arguably reached its finest moment with the debut efforts from Earle and Yoakam, which were released on subsequent Wednesdays in March 1986 in what may be the finest ever eight-day stretch in modern country music history. If by some freakish chance you don't own those two records, or are familiar only with their eponymous and semi-eponymous single releases (peaking at number seven for Earle, number four for Yoakam), put this away and go out right now and buy them. Or download them, or access your streaming service, or whatever method you use to get music. And then play them over and over and over again and soak up the sense of genuine, whole-hearted truth and emotion and joy and unadulterated faith in the power of tradition, heritage and continuity that each represents.
I am semi-confident there were nuanced and informed reviews at the time in at least some segments of what was still the traditional, printed music press. I am relatively certain they would have spelled out how important the albums were, how groundbreaking, how they represented both a quantum leap forward and a welcome step back in time: more sophisticated but also welcomingly direct, simultaneously evolved but retro, revolutionary as well as timeless. In my remote corner of New England I saw no such coverage; in fact it took me an embarrassingly long six months from the release dates to stumble across the recordings.
Information was not, I will remind those of you old enough to remember – while boring those too young to care – at everyone's fingertips: biographies were hidden well beyond a simple tap of the trackpad, critical expertise went undispersed across multiple social platforms, music industry narratives remained unshared outside those claiming to be professionals. Opinions on Earle and Yoakam were instead formed in a more organic and isolated manner based on the songs, the narrative created within and across the running order, the feel and, yes, even the packaging, which is where we'll start:
On Guitars Cadillacs Etc Etc the artist's name is detailed in bold black permanent marker strokes against a palette blob of Palm Springs swinging pool, the album title in matching electric aqua blue lettering not too many miles from Sunset Boulevard neon script, used car lots and chrome muscle car monikers. The white stetson and upturned flannel collar of the man himself provides enough 'California cowboy' to offset the youthful countenance of an artist who was by that time approaching his 30th birthday. Born in Kentucky and raised in Ohio, Yoakam escaped to Los Angeles close to where his musical heroes Buck Owens and Merle Haggard had emerged from the Bakersfield sound and where an energetic early 1980s punk scene overlapped – some would say surprisingly – with his own style of roots music, which he described as hillbilly.
The latter term, which in pre-war America was as widespread, accepted and unremarkable as 'country' is today, had largely fallen out of favour as Nashville dragged the commercial, mainstream era as far away as possible from the humbler elements of its forebears. Perhaps that is why Yoakam travelled some 2000 miles to the west to develop his signature sound. Maybe it was just the weather.
Whatever the reason, the result was a SoCal/hillbilly blend, refined outside the usual country circuit, that permeates the brilliant Guitars Cadillacs Etc Etc. Yes the usual twang and country elements are all there – acoustic guitar, Telecaster, resonator, honkytonk piano, pedal steel, fiddle, bass, drums – but they are suffused with attitude, electricity and a delivery embedded in the energy of live performance rather than the dictates of over-production still so prevalent at the time.
The Yoakam-penned standouts to these ears are the title track, It Won't Hurt, South of Cincinnati and Bury Me, but frankly that is splitting hairs: there are arguments to be made across the entire running. The selection of covers also tells you something: a hyphenated version of Honky Tonk Man was originally a hit for Johnny Horton in 1956, Ring Of Fire was of course written by June Carter Cash and made famous by husband Johnny Cash in 1963, while Heartaches By The Numbers, a Harlan Howard classic recorded separately by both Ray Price and Guy Mitchell in the late 1950s, was a staple of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Buck Owens, among others. All of those standards carry with them the weight of expectation and the potential for pitfall; Yoakam does not disappoint with any.
Guitar Town was just as dazzling, and again even before the record leaves the sleeve. The 1980s-vintage Steve Earle, denim jacket, bandana around the wrist, floppy fringe, guitar behind his back, confronts the camera in a grainy black and white image taken in front of what is either a pawn shop or an instrument store. Spiky almost fanzine orange lettering gives you his name in the top corner, offers the album title in lower case letters towards the bottom right. Steve is wedged in between, a clever bit of composition that leads the eye down the image, along a flawless posture that all these years later still reeks of candid attitude and defiance with perhaps just a hint of sadness in those eyes. 'Yeah this is me,' he seems to be saying, 'take it or leave it.'
The one-two punch of the title track and Goodbye's All We've Got Left To Say sets the stage for songs of small victories and everyday struggles, life on the road and life in small towns, the blues and the hopes and everything in between. The instrumentation, as the title suggest, is very much centred on various flavours of guitars both stylistically and in terms of equipment, with a healthy does of pedal steel in Someday and Fearless Heart, and stems from a craft honed in the tradition of legendary Texas songwriters Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. Check out James Szalapski's 1981 movie Heartworn Highways, filmed as 1975 turned to 1976, for an appreciation of the relationships involved, the creative fires in which they were forged, and just much how the influence helped to shape all that Earle would eventually achieve.
Unlike Guitars Cadillacs Etc Etc, which was hard to describe as anything other than its intended hillbilly label, Guitar Town – in what became something of an Earle trademark – offered a home at the crossroads of country and rock, straddling popular and southern culture, specifically drawn from Texas and Tennessee but garnering an audience from New York to California. As mainstream Nashville continued its pursuit of the crossover hit, Guitar Town seemed to find common ground by ignoring the walls surrounding the modern country ghetto, flouting the rules that governed what made one song one thing and one song another. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it.
The albums – they were still vinyl then, just – became the third and fourth in my collection under the broad title 'country', as it would have been defined by my peers. I just stuck them into the library in alphabetical order, as was my wont when I still owned significant amounts of physical music, and yet even then they were distinct, the artwork somehow standing out starkly separate against the surrounding collection of more 'acceptable' choices. It was all about perception, of course, no one else could have singled them out of the line up; they had simply wormed their way into my psyche, taken up a prominence in the core functions of my forebrain well beyond the actual dimensions of a record sleeve.
EARLE AND Yoakam became an integral part of a search for meaning, or perhaps meaningfulness, in the America of the mid-1980s. Two guys who to me seemed to be singing about relatively simple and straightforward events, 'A causes B means C' stories that reflected the world as it once was and perhaps should always have been: people relating to each other in an open, honest way best signified by a handshake and a smile, by a beer delivered cold, in the bottle and at a reasonable price across a scrubbed-wood bar, by a heart-rending break-up that left both sides hurting but required no therapy or lawyers.
It was about aspiration and falling short and making do and getting on, about enjoying the good times and shouldering the bad. Everything was suddenly judged against the barometer of that twangy ethos; still is in many ways.
That grounding would provide valuable perspective even as I ran as quickly as I could in the opposite direction: away from... well, just away. Following graduation it never occurred to me to head south, to return to the family heartlands of yore, to build a life among the headwaters of the cultural currents that were already undercutting the foundations of an identity built on an entirely different existence.
Rebellion was instead very much of the middle class, kick against what you think you know variety, fuelled by dissatisfaction with the state of the 'square' world, a stinging if ugly sense of entitlement, the arrogance of higher education (I have an honours degree in political science, so fuck you) and the sincere but ultimately misguided belief that any and all choices could be justified by the pursuit of a three-day bender. Those reckless excesses were integral to the ongoing creation of a mythical On the Road-esque, Gonzo-lite version of reality in which the separate but linked pursuits of drinking, driving, adrenaline and, yes, writing, were paramount. The devil wears a suit and tie, as someone famous once said; act accordingly.
The soundtrack to that experience was in the main loud and getting louder: Husker Du, Black Flag, Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Dead Kennedys. The physical music was stored in a three-foot-long cardboard file box rapidly losing its structural integrity – analogy, anyone? – that travelled with me to the Rockies for life as a working-stiff ski bum, progressed to the initial steps of a doctorate, largely because I didn't know what else to do, and where unsurprisingly it did not work out, and then back to the mountains earning a $6-an-hour living in order to drift mindlessly downhill at speed among the steeps and deeps of the Sierra Nevadas at the north end of Lake Tahoe.
A peppering of California influences inevitably joined the musical mix: early 1970s Grateful Dead, vintage LA in the shape of X, Social Distortion, Minutemen. On the back of the catalog inroads created by Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam there was also increasing volumes of rediscovered Willie, some Waylon, I think some DAC; largely greatest hits stuff, just scratching the surface. It was not obvious to me at the time but a bridge, maybe a bulkhead, was starting to take shape. It linked Jason & the Scorchers, the neotraditionalists, distant family influences and a shifting perception of what was actually important.
I was, in large part thanks to Guitars, Cadillacs Etc Etc and Guitar Town, primed.
A revolution was coming.
All text © 2020 by Todd Westbrook. May not be reproduced without express written permission of the author.