The first iconic thing about Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road is the album cover: a design that instantly changed Earle’s image. His previous two albums looked like country records. On Guitar Town he’s in a Nashville storefront with a guitar over his shoulder, looking young and hungry but basically respectable. Exit 0 had the familiar image of a highway sign – nothing to ruffle feathers there. Then, on October 17, 1988, along came Copperhead Road, with its pirate-flag backdrop and threatening, grinning skull. The message was clear: this one’s going to be a ride on the wild side.
Listen to Copperhead Road right now.
No messing around
That cover also sums up Earle’s reputation in Nashville at the time. He was a rebel, a notoriously difficult man to work with and (by his own admission later on) a budding junkie. Despite his solid cult and critical status, Nashville effectively ran him out of town on a rail. MCA shuttled him from its country to a rock imprint (the UNI label), and he moved his recording base to Memphis.
But nothing in Earle’s lifestyle got in the way of making a focused album where every searing note sounds fully considered. If he was going to rock, he wasn’t going to mess around, and the first half of the album is a barrage from start to finish – not a word about love anywhere, unless it’s the quick-shot kind that a soldier on leave seeks out in “Johnny Come Lately.” That’s all saved for the second half, whose tone and sound is so different that it’s practically a separate album. But Earle also makes sure that you’re good and exhausted by the time you get around to it.
Pointing the way
Copperhead Road’s first half was the trailblazer, but listen to it now and it doesn’t sound all that radical. A Skynyrd-style rocker (the title track) with a bagpipe intro and a mandolin as lead instrument? Occasional dabs of Celtic music, bluegrass, and rock’n’roll piano? A populist lyrical stance that distrusts politicians and sympathizes with the downtrodden? That’s all familiar stuff by now in Americana – but that genre barely existed in 1988, and might not have taken off if Copperhead Road hadn’t pointed the way.
All through the first side, people marginalized by society come forward to tell their story – and do so with defiance and anger. The singer on “Back To The Wall” is a former achiever who’s now homeless. You’re not told how he got that way, only that nobody’s interested in helping him come back. The title song traces a few generations who make money illegally because they lack a chance to do it otherwise. Meanwhile, “Snake Oil” is about campaigners who come to America’s impoverished heartland, promising cures that will never happen. And, yes, it was written 30 years ago.
Surprises and risks
The 80s version of Earle’s band The Dukes (including pedal steel player Bucky Baxter, who’d later join Dylan) rocks with abandon throughout; “Snake Oil” leaves in the studio chatter to prove it’s a first take. But there’s room for variation here as well. Guest arranger Gary Tallent lends a more commercial sheen to “The Devil’s Right Hand,” a leftover from his Nashville days whose lyric stems less from an anti-gun stance (he’d embrace that much later) than a desire to write a classic-model outlaw ballad. And he succeeded to the extent that Merle Haggard covered it. The Pogues are the backup band on “Johnny Come Lately,” but don’t call it a Celtic tune. They never sounded more like a rock’n’roll band than they do here. Even Shane MacGowan behaved enough to play some hot banjo.
The second side is a surprise and a risk, and some critics at the time just plain didn’t like it. But the four love songs here also cut deeper than anything Earle had done previously, literally making romance a matter of life and death. Behind its pounding Spector-esque drums, “Once You Love” tells a tragic story of an old man who got burned early in life and never got over it. Hints of Earle’s later work are here – the McGuinn-styled 12-string on “Waitin’ On You” anticipates the 60s sound of 1996 album I Feel Alright, while “You Belong to Me” makes an unlikely mix of Bo Diddley beat and programmed drums.
Likewise, “Even When I’m Blue” thanks his love for coping with his depression, opening up the tricky emotional territory he’d explore later on. It all ends with a Christmas song, of all things. The reverent tone and hopeful sentiments of “Nothing But A Child” should’ve gotten him welcomed back to Nashville (it didn’t), but it’s rightly become something of a holiday standard since then.
In some ways, Copperhead Road remains a one-off in Steve Earle’s catalog. The follow-up studio album, The Hard Way, was much different: he’d become a fully-fledged rock’n’roller with destructive habits to match, a swing of indulgence that was captured for all to hear on the shambling live album Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator. That was his last stand before things really went off the tracks. Earle did his time, got himself clean, and came back with an even greater sense of purpose and a stronger focus.
Earle’s closest attempt to a Copperhead Road follow-up is probably 2000’s Transcendental Blues, which brings back the scruffy rock’n’roll and fuses it once again with bluegrass and Celtic music (including his best-loved Celtic song, “The Galway Girl”). But Earle’s modern work is the stuff of a savvy career artist; Copperhead Road sounds like one determined to burn out or fade away. The big payoff is that, ultimately, Earle did neither.
Copperhead Road can be bought here.