When Steve Earle dropped Guitar Town, his sampler of fringe characters, beautiful losers, and shattered dreams, into mainstream country in 1986, everybody agreed on one thing — the son of a gun could write songs. But with his mix of Mellencamp muscle, Tom T. Hall imagery, and serial-killer looks, he was too rock for country, too country for rock — notwithstanding last year’s Train-A-Comin’, Earle’s folkie comeback after a long treatment for heroin addiction.
With his new album, I Feel Alright, Texas-raised Earle turns a middle finger to Nashville and screams, ”Chuck it, I’m rockin’ out!” And that he does. Though the record has a driving, primarily acoustic sound, Richard Bennett and Ray Kennedy’s electric guitars regularly crash into the mix like turbocharged chain saws.
Earle earned his cult following in part for his mournful sketches of the disenfranchised; the surprise here is that so many of the new songs are downright upbeat and joyful. The first single, ”More Than I Can Do,” recalls jangly Beatles riffs, and lighthearted melodic snatches of Buddy Holly and John Prine pop up throughout. Except for the autobiographical blues of ”CCKMP” (”cocaine cannot kill my pain”), which conveys the junkie’s desperation, and ”Billy and Bonnie,” which trails a couple down the highway of destruction, the intense story songs of Earle’s past records give way to positive declarations of romance. ”Valentine’s Day,” literally a Valentine to his wife last Feb. 14, juxtaposes gruff, Tom Waits-ish background vocals with violins.
Earle is now in a second year of sobriety, which may account for his narrative turnaround. If I Feel Alright doesn’t deliver the grit that has been Earle’s gift to rock and country, his roots-rock joie de vivre sends no apologies, only a healthy message for the ’90s: Don’t feel bad about feeling good. A