Steve Earle re­vis­its Cop­per­head Road

Steve Earle re­vis­its his land­mark 1988 al­bum on 30th an­niver­sary tour

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - JOR­DAN ZIVITZ

Be­fore alt-coun­try be­came a wide­spread de­scrip­tion, let alone a cliché, there was Cop­per­head Road.

Her­alded by bag­pipe tones meld­ing with rus­tic man­dolin, the ti­tle track to Steve Earle’s third al­bum made a last­ing im­pres­sion from its open­ing sec­onds. By the time the song kicked into high gear with a head­banger’s ball a few min­utes later, it sounded like a rev­o­lu­tion in 1988.

Thirty years later, the al­bum re­mains a land­mark in Earle’s ca­reer, and in coun­try mu­sic. But at the time, Earle says, he didn’t as­sume Cop­per­head Road would be an en­dur­ing state­ment.

“I was just try­ing to get kicked off the coun­try di­vi­sion of MCA and get on the rock di­vi­sion,” Earle, now 63, said re­cently with a grav­elly chuckle.

“I didn’t know what the al­bum was go­ing to do. … I knew I didn’t have a fu­ture at coun­try ra­dio, just be­cause of what it was be­com­ing and what the coun­try di­vi­sion of my record la­bel was do­ing. I was just try­ing to make a place for my­self in the world.”

Earle had al­ready made a place for him­self ar­tis­ti­cally, stak­ing out the cross­roads of au­then­tic coun­try and rock ‘n’ roll on his 1986 de­but, Gui­tar Town. But Cop­per­head Road el­e­vated him from pro­gres­sive out­law to sin­gu­lar force — a vi­tal song­writer and com­pelling sto­ry­teller who ca­su­ally broke down walls be­tween gen­res as dis­tinct as blue­grass and hard rock.

As he did with Gui­tar Town, Earle is ac­knowl­edg­ing Cop­per­head’s 30th an­niver­sary with a tour on which he per­forms the al­bum in full, backed by an in­car­na­tion of his long­time band the Dukes “that can play stuff from pretty much any point in my ca­reer.” The tour’s Cana­dian leg is un­der­way and in­cludes nearly two dozen shows — a tes­ta­ment to Earle’s con­tin­u­ing pop­u­lar­ity in this coun­try, and to his early support here. He re­calls play­ing are­nas in Canada in support of Cop­per­head Road and its 1990 fol­lowup, The Hard Way.

“From the first record, I’ve al­ways done bet­ter per capita in Canada than any place else in the world. I think it’s a tra­di­tion of great song­writ­ing there — I think songs are im­por­tant to you,” he said. “There’s been more than your fair share of really great Cana­dian song­writ­ers. I think some of it’s the English and Scot­tish thing that’s so deep in Canada’s DNA, and there’s an oral tra­di­tion there that likes song­writ­ing and likes sto­ries be­ing told. That’s al­ways been my the­ory.”

The sto­ries on Cop­per­head Road are united in their por­traits of the ne­glected and the des­per­ate, from the un­flinch­ing view of home­less­ness on the tough-as-nails Back to the Wall to the war vets who pop­u­late the ti­tle track and Johnny Come Lately.

“I was try­ing to make a record for the same rea­son that Oliver Stone made Pla­toon,” Earle said, “be­cause we fi­nally started talk­ing about the Viet­nam War. That’s what the record is about.

“At least Side 1. Side 2’s where all the chick songs are.”

Cop­per­head Road’s first half yielded the stan­dards that have stayed in heavy ro­ta­tion in Earle’s shows for three decades, but long­time fans may find the chance to hear the sen­ti­men­tal love songs from its back half to be as strong a sell­ing point for the ret­ro­spec­tive tour. “I re­al­ize now why I got mar­ried so many times in the ’80s,” he said. “But those songs are fun, be­cause a lot of them haven’t been played since 1988.”

Still, it’s the hard­scrab­ble first side on which Cop­per­head Road’s rep­u­ta­tion rests, and which led Earle to mem­o­rably la­bel the al­bum as heavy-metal blue­grass.

“That was tongue-in-cheek, but like all things that are tongue-incheek, it isn’t com­pletely un­true,” he said. “But a lot of that was just a joke about how I de­cided to start play­ing man­dolin in my ’30s.

“I only knew two chords on man­dolin, and you hear ’em on that record. It was years be­fore I learned any more.”

Earle says he was al­ways fas­ci­nated with the in­stru­ment that helped give Cop­per­head Road’s ti­tle track its sig­na­ture sound. When he re­lo­cated from Texas to Nashville in 1974, “there were two cir­cles of hip­sters: there was a cir­cle of song­writ­ers, most of whom were from Texas and were around Guy Clark, and there was a bunch of long-haired blue­grass mu­si­cians who hung out around John Hart­ford. And those were the two groups of peo­ple that smoked pot, so those were the two groups I hung with.”

Earle has just com­pleted a trib­ute to his men­tor Clark, who died in 2016; the al­bum of cov­ers is sched­uled for March. He’s al­ready work­ing on its fol­lowup, to be re­leased in 2020; as with his 2004 state-of-the-union al­bum The Rev­o­lu­tion Starts Now, which came out in the wan­ing days of Ge­orge W. Bush’s first term, it’s intended as a plat­form in a crit­i­cal elec­tion year.

“It’s not a record that preaches to the choir. It does a lit­tle of that, but it also speaks to peo­ple that maybe voted for Don­ald Trump and maybe didn’t have to. And hope­fully, if I do it right, it speaks for them, too. That’s the record I want to write,” Earle said.

“I don’t em­pathize with the ones in the funny hats that are just plain mean and racist, but I em­pathize with the peo­ple who are frus­trated that this trickle-down eco­nom­ics thing never seems to trickle down.

“We vote in pri­vate for a rea­son, and I think try­ing to make peo­ple ad­mit that they were wrong (in vot­ing for Trump), it’s not a healthy or a pro­duc­tive thing to do. If we make them feel like they’re heard and they ’re not alone, maybe they ’ll do some­thing dif­fer­ent next time. I think we have to take some re­spon­si­bil­ity for that.”

Steve Earle and the Dukes per­form Wed­nes­day, Sept. 26 at 8 p.m. at South­ern Al­berta Ju­bilee Au­di­to­rium, 1415 14 Ave. NW, with the Master­sons. Tick­ets start at $57, avail­able via tick­et­mas­


Singer-song­writer Steve Earle says he made the 1988 al­bum Cop­per­head Road as a way to get kicked off the coun­try di­vi­sion of his record la­bel at the time.

Steve Earle, third from left, lauds the Dukes — Brad Pem­ber­ton, left, Kel­ley Looney, Ricky Ray Jack­son, Eleanor Whit­more and Chris Master­son — who can play mu­sic from any point in his ca­reer.

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