("Exploring the Classics" (ETC) is an ongoing series in which I highlight and discuss an album from country music's past that is of particular noteworthiness due to general acclaim, influence, historical import, commercial success, or some combination thereof. While in many instances I'll be revisiting albums with which I've long been familiar, in others I'll be experiencing these works for the first time. What albums count as "noteworthy" is obviously highly subjective and determined at my discretion, but I'm not too strict about it. I do, however, feel that these are the works that tell the story of country music.)
While the mid-'80s through the early '90s are a period associated with neotraditional country music, it was also a time when a generation of highly literate singer-songwriters with folk leanings began to emerge, making excellent music that was inspired by Americana and alt-country forebears like Townes Van Zandt, John Prine and Guy Clark. While their commercial success was often limited, they made some of the most essential music of that era.
[Editor's Note: When Guy Clark passed away back in May (wow, has it been nearly two months already?), I just knew I had to review one of his albums before long. While I don't have it in me at the moment to tackle his masterpiece, 1975's Old No. 1, I decided to cover another album in his illustrious catalog: 2009's Somedays the Song Writes You. While I no longer regard this album as being among his very best, it has some special meaning to me because it was the first Guy Clark album I ever heard back around 2009. I decided to take a trip down memory lane and revisit it.]
While the lion's share of Guy Clark's best work came in the twentieth century, he continued to record fine albums into the 2000s. 2009's Somedays The Song Writes You is such an example: a laid-back set of well-crafted tunes that prove Clark was still capable of writing a great song despite getting up there in age. It's not entirely without flaws, but there's a lot to like here, and this is exactly the kind of album you should try out if you crave smart songwriting and meaningful narratives in your music.
Alt-country legend Steve Earle famously dealt with a bevy of personal problems in the late '80s and early '90s, not least among them a heroin addiction and a short stint in prison. Thankfully, he managed to achieve sobriety and put his life back on track, and it was living through those experiences that brought about the most creatively fertile portion of his career. He released the excellent acoustic record Train a Comin' in 1994, followed it up with the masterful I Feel Alright in 1996, and continued the winning streak with 1997's El Corazón ("The Heart" in English), which I'll be reviewing today.
Steve Earle is one of those artists whose sound is impossible to pigeonhole. He can pull off country-folk, hard rock, and traditional bluegrass, often all on the same album, and El Corazón is a great example of his versatility. Successful stabs are taken at bluegrass ("I Still Carry You Around" with the Del McCoury Band, foreshadowing their later collaborative album), pure country ("The Other Side of Town"), and hard rock (the outstanding "N.Y.C.", in which Earle is accompanied by the alternative rock band the Supersuckers). While the production of "N.Y.C." is laid on thick, specifically in an apparent vocal distortion in the chorus, it completely works in the context of the song's narrative of a young man visiting the Big Apple for the first time. Other strong tracks include the alt-country/rock humdinger "If You Fall", the confident mission statement "Here I Am", and "Poison Lovers", a well-crafted duet with English pop singer-songwriter Siobhan Kennedy.