Did Steve Earle Have the Best Three Album Run in Rock History? - by Colin Gawel

Steve Earle and the Dukes will be playing the Newport Music Hall in Columbus, Ohio Sunday, June 10th.

Among the many subjective questions music geeks like myself love arguing about online and in line at bars is the classic quandary: What are the best three album runs in rock n roll history? (Not including live records), Hell, almost every band with some success has made a pretty great record. Less have made two in a row. And fewer have cranked out three consecutive five star efforts.

I would like to use this space to suggest that starting with I Feel Alright and continuing with El Corazon and Transcendental Blues, Steve Earle had an amazing three record run that deserves to be mentioned among the most worthy of all time.

I Feel Alright (1996)  A great record by any standard, context is what really pushes I Feel Alright into five star territory. By this point in his career, Steve Earle was just an addict who under-achieved despite his enormous talents and opportunities. And quite frankly, as he writes in South Nashville Blues, was always on the verge of being killed or locked up again.

Along with Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle was going to save country from Nashville and its Music City excesses. And though all the guys in my band Watershed liked Steve Earle, something was always a little off. Guitar Town was good, not great. Exit 0 was uneven to say the least. And for all of its calculated AOR success, even Copperhead Road had kind of an unfocused, muddy pall about it. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the record, but compared  say, If There Was a Way by Dwight Yoakam, it was just missing something..

Turns out what was missing was sobriety and a clear mind from Mr. Earle. Following The Hard Way, Steve disappeared for five long years before dipping his toe back in the water with the folky Train a Comin’. It was pretty cool and the Watershed van was happy to be spinning some new Steve Earle again, but for guys who has spent New Year's Eve seeing KISS on the Crazy Nights Tour a mere seven years before, we weren’t really prepared for the mighty wind Steve had blowing on this record.

Then…. Steve dropped I Feel Alright. From the opening chords of the title track to the stunning finale of “You’re Still Standing There” (featuring a jaw-dropping cameo from Lucinda Williams), this record ruled our world.  

The very next year El Corazon was released. The album opener stopped me dead in my tracks. Nobody led off a record with a song like Christmas in Washington. Did they? That ain’t your granddaddy's Xmas song. Republicans bad. Woody Guthrie good. El Coro felt like an extension of the previous record and Steve was still rolling. Heavier moments like Here I Am (Live with The V-Roys!) balanced with heartbreakers like Fort Worth Blues. Man, Biggie would drive the van, dip and play this one all night long. 

(Ok, I know I’m cheating a bit, but Earle's next record, The Mountain, was a collaboration with the Del McCoury Band recorded as a tribute the founder of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, who had died in 1996. We are going to skip that one.)

Just when it seemed Steve was going to disappear up his own ass on a bluegrass bender he released his best, and possibly my favorite record of all time, Transcendental Blues (2000) Outside of Darkness on the Edge of Town, no record has meant more to me than this gem. Just spin it top to bottom over and over until you die. I have never tired of the title cut despite not being able to spell the word Transcendental or really understanding what it means. Even after reading the definition and after repeatedly looking up how to spell it. 

Coffee customers staring at me. I better jump. Check out these amazing records and catch Steve at the Newport June 10th or on tour later this summer with...wait for it…. Dwight Yoakam and Lucinda Williams.

Colin Gawel founded Pencilstorm and plays in the band Watershed. He wrote this while spilling hot stuff at Colin’s Coffee in Columbus, Ohio.