This set represents an often-overlooked period, and one of intense experimentation, for Steve Earle — who couldn’t have been further removed (personally or professionally) from his earliest triumphs on Guitar Town and Copperhead Road.
In the meantime, Earle had run afoul with the law, amidst a whirling descent into drug abuse. Cleaned up at the end of 1994, he began his career anew — in more ways than one. Being sober had led Earle to a new focus on trying new sounds, on trying new things.
He made an acoustic record with Train A Comin,’ a country-focused album with 1996’s I Feel Alright, a bluegrass-inflected effort with 1997’s El Corazon, even while holding fast to the gnarly rock rebel persona that he’d forged back in the bad old days. He’d also sharpened a political view point that had first come to wider attention on the first side of Copperhead Road down to a glinting serrated edge.
He’d turn the blade on himself sometimes, too, cutting his own narrative to shreds.
So, you have “Hometown Blues,” a story about returning to his hometown in Texas and going unrecognized — by everyone but the cops. And “Now She’s Gone,” a tender remembrances of long-gone kisses and the last whispers of her perfume. And the bitter, bitter realizations of “Other Side of Town.” And also songs referencing Lead Belly “Angel is the Devil”), Woody Guthrie (“Christmas in Washington”), and the Beatles (“I’m Looking Through You”).
Earle, this set makes clear, emerged from his forced quietude with so very much to say.
The Warner Bros. Years is bolstered by a pair of live performances. There, Earle’s bold character portraits spring to ever-more-vivid life, as he weaves tales of love and love lost with the same writerly specificity as he does morality tales and political conundrums.
Most interesting is perhaps the previously unreleased 1995 Live at Polk Theater concert album, which features a trio of diaphanous performances by Emmylou Harris. The DVD To Hell and Back, recorded in 1996 at Tennessee’s Cold Creek Correctional Facility, includes tough new renditions of both “Cooperhead Road” and “Guitar Town,” followed by a raucous set-closing take on Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”