‘Guitar Town’: Steve Earle’s Hard-Earned Debut Statement

The Virginian country-rock troubadour had been treading the boards around Nashville for a dozen years when his debut album came out in 1986.

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Steve Earle artwork: UMG
Steve Earle artwork: UMG

By the time Steve Earle reached Guitar Town, he had travelled far. It was his debut album, but the Virginian country-rock troubadour was already 31 when it was released, and had been treading the boards around Nashville for a dozen years. Even then, the album took seven months to make its Billboard chart debut, but when it did on October 25, 1986, it officially launched one of the most notable careers of any Americana artist.

Earle had even appeared in the much-underrated and recommended Nashville documentary Heartworn Highways when he was a mere 20-year-old, alongside such emerging figureheads as Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Rodney Crowell. His first EP was released in 1982, as he began to be noticed around Music Row as a songwriter, covered by Johnny Lee and, in a personal landmark, Carl Perkins.

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After the false start of a deal with CBS, Earle found himself among supporters and kindred spirits at MCA. Guitar Town was written primarily by the singer-guitarist, with input from Tony Brown, Richard Bennett, and Jimbeau Hinson. Word soon spread about its refreshingly “real” sound, which embraced country’s roots and gave them an authentic rock edge.

The title song became a Top 10 country hit, while the album itself topped the country listings and made No.89 in a solid 20-week run. It went gold for 500,000 US sales in 1999, by which time Earle was a seasoned survivor who continues his prolific career to this day. 2017 saw the admirable So You Wannabe An Outlaw and in the autumn of 2018, Earle’s extensive North American tour had him on the road well into the new year.

Listen to the Outlaw And Disorder: Country Rebels playlist, featuring Steve Earle and dozens of other fearless mavericks.

March 2019 brought Guy, his tribute album to one of his enduring heroes, Guy Clark. Then the spring of 2020 heralded Steve’s 20th studio release, Ghosts of West Virginia, praised by AllMusic as “some of the most eloquent music he’s written in two decades.” His early 2021 set J.T. created a powerful tribute to Steve’s oldest son Justin Townes Earle, who sadly died the previous summer at the age of just 38.

Buy or stream the deluxe edition of Guitar Town.

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