Steve Earle has been releasing great music since his debut album Guitar Town dropped in 1986. He is known for straddling the line between the personal and political; folk music and rock and roll. Earle has dared to dissent even when it’s not been fashionable to do so, sticking to a story-song tradition in the vein of Woody Guthrie, Earle has made a mark on modern music – as a solo artist and with his band the Dukes. Whether you’re just diving into his catalog, or looking for an excuse to plow deeper into the work of an artist you already know, here’s some of Steve Earle’s most popular and provocative songs.
Steve Earle – like countless others since the city’s founding – has written more than a couple of songs which were clearly inspired by his adopted home town of Manhattan. In fact, this whole album - Washington Square Serenade (compare prices) - is a tribute of sorts to the city. But, as songs about the Big Apple go, you’d be hard-pressed to find one better than this. “City of Immigrants” is at once a tribute to New York, a statement about immigration, and an assertion of Earle's faith in the promise of America. Where his topical songs tend to poke criticism at the government, “City of Immigrants” is a “This Land Is Your Land”-style song which lifts up the average American. “Everyone is everyone,” he sings, “all of us are immigrants.”
Considering Steve Earle has tackled everything in his songs from artistry to government, terrorism, and love, it made sense for him to grapple with spirituality. "God Is God" originally appeared on Joan Baez’s The Day After Tomorrow album, which Earle produced in 2008. He revisited it on his 2011 release. The song approaches spirituality from a more secular perspective, recognizing godliness as implicit. Unlike other songwriters before him, he didn’t address God as a working class hero. Rather, he approached faith from a humanist, non-fanatic perspective. The statement isn’t one of agnosticism. It’s one of how no amount of fanaticism or evangelicism will make God’s presence any more real or pervasive in the world.
Coming at “Christmas in Washington” from this end of history, it’s hard to believe Steve Earle wrote it during the Clinton administration. It dropped before Bush was elected, before 9/11, before the two wars and the major economic slump, before Hurricane Katrina, before so many of the things which have come to characterize these times we live in. Considering what was going on in the world in 1997, it’s hard to remember where that kind of cynicism would have come from at that time. And yet, even in times of relative peace and prosperity (something which is never absolute), there’s always some level of corruption against which dissent is vital. Steve Earle showed all these things in this song, which has proven as timeless as it was timely.
One of the greatest recurring tragedies in America (and around the world) is arguably the fate which too often befalls our coal miners. Mining coal has long been one of the most dangerous jobs – whether it requires folks to crawl down into holes in mountains, or allows companies to blast the faces off mountains (destroying the lives and cultures of nearby communities). So, it’s no surprise that Steve Earle would take his turn to wrap his pen around a coal mining song. This title track from the album he made with the Del McCoury band tackles coal mining from the perspective of someone who has grown up on the mountain and sees it as their cultural duty to work in its mine. As such, it's both working class song and environmental statement.
Especially in recent years – probably a result of the intense topical nature of his songs since releasing The Revolution Starts Now in '04 – Earle has become popular for his protest songs. He’s not quite as well-known for love songs. Earle has been married seven times – a fact which lends itself better to heartbreak songs than their romantic counterparts. But, he has occasionally released a happy song which captures love in the most honest and clear way. "Every Part of Me" is not drippy, sloppy romance. It’s an assertion of the kind of love which sustains long-term relationships. There’s romance, to be sure, but there’s also the admittance of flaws, the determination to compromise, and a statement of partnership.
Townes Van Zandt famously said all music is the blues, except for "Zippadeedoodah." Following in his mentor’s wake, Earle has not shied from the blues. He’s written a number of blues songs in his career, from "Transcendental Blues" to "John Walker’s Blues" and beyond. Few of them compare to the "My Old Friend the Blues," though. This song from his debut set a precedent for the navel-gazing self-effacing songwriting which has long accompanied his heartbreak tunes. And yet, while there’s an element of "poor me" in this tune, it’s also so honest it almost verges on sarcasm, but not quite. There’s a humor to this – and many of Steve Earle’s saddest songs. It’s that element which sets him apart from the Debbie Downers of the songwriting world.