Flashback Friday: Steve Earle was my Saviour

Trawling through my music collection to pick one album that has had a deep and meaningful impression on my life is a near impossible undertaking. 90 percent of my CDs are hip hop, and that is what I have listened to since I was 12 or 13. I love hip hop day in and day out still, and plenty of hip hop artists have had an impact on my life. Their words have sculpted me, taught me how to creatively use language, and made me understand the crazy concepts of love and loss.

I applied everything hip hop taught me and it took me across the world to America on a basketball scholarship; I saw the streets of LA that I had heard about, driving very quickly down Crenshaw Blvd and to a place where a man in a green suit told me ‘white boys don’t belong’. Then I moved out to the sticks of Nebraska, Corn Husker territory, and that’s where I discovered country music.

A friend of mine told me that according to research, music will never again has the same impact on you as it does when you’re first developing your own taste in music, at about 12-14 years old – this is the music we love for life. I agree to the extent that I will always love hip hop, but I would argue that the strong emotional connection I found to country music is the same, if not greater, than my response to hip hop all those years ago.

I spent 5 amazing years in Nebraska, and in this time I experienced about 10 months of absolute darkness. But that’s where country music saved me, finding me right at the bottom of a bottle of rum and a dozen $1.50 pots of Budweiser. Being borderline homeless with no CDs of my own, I would just rummage through the music choices of the people’s couches I was sleeping on and early on I found a real gem from the couch of a guy called Chad. The album was Steve Earle’s Live From Austin, TX with Steve Earle on guitar and vocals, Ken Moore on keyboards, Bucky Baxter on guitar, Ron Kling on bass guitar and keyboards, Harry Stinson on drums and Mike McAdam on guitar. The album was recorded in September 1986 but was for some reason not released until 2004.

The first song that grabbed my attention was track 3 on the album, Guitar Town. The opening line goes “Hey, pretty baby, are you ready for me?” I didn’t think I was, but it turned out that at this point in my life, I was oh so ready for Steve Earle.

I was intrigued by Steve Earle’s approach to song writing. Some of his songs don’t have a standard chorus, but use a simple line to great effect throughout the song in different contexts. This is most apparent in Angry Young Man where he uses the phrase “angry young man” to connect the verses, with a different scenario each time, saying: “There ain’t no peace for an angry young man,” “This ain’t no place for an angry young man” and “The only way for an angry young man.” It just runs so smoothly, connecting each verse.

Angry Young Man grabbed me right from the opening line; the song resonated with me: “Got a lot of memories tied up in this place/So much time spent in so little space,” was exactly the thoughts I was having after 5 years in small-town America was taking its toll on me. “Kind of closes in on you after a while” was the most accurate description of how all of a sudden, a town 15 streets by 15 streets was the tiniest place on earth – especially when you’re trying to avoid someone. Everywhere I went I saw her, every time I did something, she saw me. I buried myself deeper into a hole, became angrier and angrier at the world, at society, at religion, at anything at all I could rail against, and especially at love and lies and the bitterness leftover. Alcohol started to be the only thing that made sense to me, and Steve Earle had seen it all before. Chad’s house was my own “cheap hotel a long way from my home;” every night the bar was pack but I really understood how somehow “So many people make you feel so alone.”

Every line in Angry Young Man pulled at the strings of my situation. My dreams had  “die[d] easy out here in these streets” and as far as “hearts grow cold in the city heat,” well, I had that too. I no longer had hopes of making it pro in basketball, and the girl that I’d pinned my next dream on had also shattered. I wanted to go home but I was afraid to move back to my mum’s, so afraid for her to see me in this state. My man Steve knew this feeling exactly: “Mama if you could see me right now/You’d be so sure you failed me somehow/Mama you never could understand/ There ain’t no peace for an angry young man.”

I balanced out the raw anger of Angry Young Man with the quiet desperation of  My Old Friend The Blues. This was my night-time song, and I would take a few pain killers after a long day of writing sports news and drinking, lay back on my kid-sized bed and just listen to that guitar line. I would let it flow through me, seeping into every capillary of my soul; I would leave the song on repeat and drift off to sleep. My Old Friend The Blues still calms me if I am feeling depressed or anxious, or am just having trouble sleeping. Like Steve himself says, “I know I can always count on you, my old friend the blues”.

After around 10 months of listening to Steve Earle day-in-day-out, I finally started regaining a grip on my life – I even met a girl. Although she couldn’t be my San Antonio Girl (she’s never even been to Texas), I started spending all my time with her. When I would set off to drive the hour and a half to work a week at a time in the countryside, I would miss her, and Steve Earle’s words popped into my head: “I’m out here on the highway goin’ crazy without you.” Once again, he knew what I was thinking – Steve Earle’s music had seen me right through and to the other side of my darkest days. So I took a chance, and  played her the now very beaten up CD, and, luckily, she loved it.

Her favourite song was Fearless Heart, and when she listened to it, she also had a little darkness in her eyes. I never asked her, but I think she made a strong connection to this song – it was about both of us at the time. “It’s kinda soon to fall in love again/But sometimes the best that you can do is just jump back in” was how Steve summed up our situation. Neither of us really wanted to go down that road again, but we trusted to Steve Earle and eventually took his advice when he says, “I can’t promise this’ll work out right/But it would kill me darlin’ if we didn’t even try.”

I still throw on Steve Earle in good times and bad. I don’t have to be in need of a pick me up, or have dark emotions to work through. I just get the feeling I need to hear some Steve played loud for the pure and simple joy of the music, the clever words, the fun he has with the performance. Guitar Town was the first song that grabbed me and is still a song I love to play when driving down the highway with all the windows down. It is a live album, after all, it’s meant to be loud and you can really feel the crowd’s energy.

I was lucky enough to be part of the crowd myself when Steve Earle came out to Australia and played at the Forum in Melbourne last year. Tickets were a little steep, but honestly, I would have paid anything to see not only the legend in country music but also my saviour. I took my girl with me and sang along to almost every song – except the ones I’d known from listening to on Live From Austin, TX. For those, I stood quietly holding in my arms everything I held dear, and let him play. I didn’t sing a word, I just smiled, I was happy.