Review Summary: You can smell the whiskey burning down Copperhead Road
Steve Earle is a big name in the business of country music, but don't let that tag fool you. Though his early albums owed a lot to the twangy sounds of the Nashville crowd, he is best known for popularising the crossing over of country with rock influences which would land him comparisons with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp, Ronnie Van Zant and Bob Dylan. His later work would consist of progressive efforts that extended well beyond the limited scope of the genre, but that came much later. The focus here is on Earles most well known release and most "rock" album, 1988's Copperhead Road
Earles heroin habit, left-wing politics and desire to evolve musically landed him in trouble with record label MCA Nashville so he was moved on to MCA's Los Angeles-based Uni imprint cutting Copperhead Road
in the process. Earle called it the world's first blend of heavy metal and bluegrass, whilst in their review of the album at the time Rolling Stone claimed the style as "power twang". In either case, the album isn't represented well by either of these descriptions (there is nothing metal about it, and power twang is just silly) but what the album does offer is an excellent slab of ready made alt-country powered by big guitars and passionate songwriting.
Title track Copperhead Road
was the big single, a massive hit that can still be heard in constant daytime and late night radio rotation. From it's bagpipe synth intro to the mandolin parts of the verse to it's loud "rock" sections, it is very worthy of this this attention as it is a monster of a track. It recounts the story of a Vietnam war veteran, straight out of a redneck moonshine bootlegging clan who returns home to Johnson County, Tennessee to grow marijuana on his family's land. Earle's lyrics have a folksy, anthemic narrative to them and this a major strength of Copperhead Road. Snake Oil
is a perfect case in point, starting with a circus
style piano loop which has a showmanlike feel to it the verse sections are built around a simple, effective rhythm guitar as Earle relishes the role of a Snake Oil salesman in a metaphorical attack on then president Ronald Reagan comparing him to a traveling con man (Ladies and gentlemen, attention please/come in close so everyone can see/I got a tale to tell/a listen don't cost a dime
"). It's an incredibly satisfying delivery and a great song.
Whilst Snake Oil
is about as political as Copperhead Road gets, Johnny Comes Lately
touches on Vietnam through telling the story of two generations of soldiers coming home from the war. Featuring The Pogues as a backing band, it is an excellent track that is very much in the style of one of the groups own energetic and passionate folk efforts, just with Earle singing. Another highlight, The Devil's Right Hand
tells the tale of a lonely gunslinger with some of the most poignant lyrics to be found here (The devils right hand/The devils right hand/Mama said the pistol is the devils right hand
). Many of the other tracks here such as Back To The Wall
, Even When I'm Blue
, You Belong To Me
, Waiting On Me and Once You Love
aren't quite as notable but are undeniably excellent country belters dealing with your typical love and life scenarios. This is not a bad thing mind you as every track here serves to make the album flow very well, but the highlights here just can't be touched.
Copperhead Road is nothing short of great, those who would dismiss it merely on the grounds of the hillbilly stigma associated with country music are missing out. Earle offers some excellent folksy songwriting here, the guitars are crisp and it sounds good. Grab a beer and turn it up.