Today is the birthday of alt-country artist Steve Earle, a Texas boy who now lives in the Village in NYC. Today’s song is from the album El Corazón, released in 1997. That’s when I first heard of him, and he had a great run of LPs in the late Nineties, culminating in Transcendental Blues in 2000. I haven’t been as into him of late, though his album Townes (2009), comprised of songs by Townes Van Zant, is noteworthy. Still, my favorite of Earle’s Van Zant covers is “Tecumseh Valley” on Train A-Comin’ (1995).
I remember when I first heard this song. We were having a cook-out at my parents’ house as we often did in those days, and my brother Jerry, who always did the grilling, put on a tape of Steve Earle stuff while he was firin’ up the grill. Jer was a big Country music man in the Eighties, but, though, like him, I grew up in a house where our dad liked Johnny Cash, among other things, I never got into Country in my youth. There was always the taint of Hee Haw, if you know what I’m saying.
In any case, I was sitting there in the backyard waitin’ on a steerburger and getting to like more and more of Earle’s songs. They’re very well-written, often telling stories and having catchy phrases and tunes. Since he started as a songwriter in Nashville, Earle certainly has his Country chops, but, on the other hand, it’s clear he listened to The Beatles and everything that took off from there. Earle is four years older than me and is the only contemporary of mine, in Country music, that I willingly listen to, as most of the others go too far with that, turning Country into ersatz Eagles music, and worse.
One of the clever story-songs I heard that day was Earle’s classic “Devil’s Right Hand,” which was a hit for Johnny Cash and others. But the song that I most associate with that first intro to Earle is today’s song, in part because it was a slice of real life rather than a story of the Old West or some other character Earle invents for the song. The first-person perspective in this song is believably Earle himself and could as easily be you or I, assuming you and I aren’t New Yorkers.
You have to be a hick, in other words, commiserating on your misery out there in the sticks. That’s where the good ol’ boys in this song hail from. The speaker of the song picks up Billy, a hitch-hiking kid, armed with a guitar and a suitcase, who is “goin’ to New York City.” It’s easy to imagine his sheepish aw-shucks posture as he says he “heard the girls’re pretty” there in the Big Apple. Fella’s gonna head on in, have a look around, see what’s what. Hell, maybe raise a little hell. Become a sensation ‘n’ all.
This sparks a memory in the guy at the wheel, which he shares with us but not with Billy: “See, I been to New York City / Seems like it was yesterday / I stood there like a pilgrim / On the Great White Way / The girls were really pretty / But they wouldn’t talk to me / I held out about a week / Went back to Tennessee.” So, what to tell the kid?
Warn him? Give him the benefit of his older but wiser perspective? “I mean I was just jealous / If I didn’t wish him well / I slipped the kid a twenty / Said ‘Billy give ’em hell.’” Then the pay-off: That musical stutter at about 2:49, a play on the “urban tracks” that by then dominated music. In fact, the whole song, with its rhythm track and distorted guitars is, by some reckonings, a far cry from Country. And that’s what got me: the hybrid nature of the song, it’s ability to wink both at Hicksville and Hitsville U.S.A. It’s the classic story of the kid from the sticks hitting the big city to try and make a name or at least get some “experience.” The speaker believes he knows better and that Billy ain’t going nowhere, but. Let the kid have his day.
That message—you’re past it, buddy, but here come the new kids (or “Your old road is rapidly aging / Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand”)—sat well with me that bucolic afternoon, pushin’ forty and eatin’ barbeque.
Step down, have a bean. Y’all come back now, y’hear?