In his brief intro to this collection, Steve Earle makes one point: that his creativity in recovery is far greater than it was in the throes of addiction. He writes, "I've done way more shit sober than I did fucked up...There are people who would argue that my early albums, Guitar Town
and Copperhead Road
are better records than Train a Comin'
and El Corazón
but they're wrong...." Writer/director/colleague David Simon (Homicide
, The Wire
) makes a far longer, more detailed, and personal case for the same thing in his lengthy liner essay. The truth is that Earle's right; the three studio albums collected from his tenure with Warner Bros. -- Train a Comin'
, I Feel Alright
, and El Corazón
-- were all recorded in consecutive years after his getting out of jail and rehab. They are as different from one another as they are from virtually anything else on the Americana scene, and they remain so. Train a Comin'
featured current songs ("Goodbye," "Angel Is the Devil") against some of his earliest ("Tom Ames' Prayer," "Ben McCulloch"), stripped to the bone and played acoustically with legends Norman Blake
, Roy Huskey
, and Peter Rowan
. I Feel Alright
was the direct opposite, a more roots-oriented return to the rock & roll of Copperhead Road
, yet harder and more consistent: evidence lies in tracks such as the title, "Hard-Core Troubadour," "Billy and Bonnie," and "South Nashville Blues." But it's the last of these recordings that is the masterpiece. El Corazón
wed country, bluegrass, Celtic folk, and rock & roll in a collection that brought Earle's wide range into clear view. Though there isn't a weak track on the set, the highlights, to name a few, include the protest folk of "Christmas in Washington," which calls on the wandering spirits of Woody Guthrie
, Emma Goldman, and Joe Hill
to inspire a new generation; the rock & roll indictment of racism in "Taneytown" with Emmylou Harris; "I Still Carry You Around," a busted bluegrass love song with the Del McCoury Band
(with whom he would record The Mountain
a year later); the hard alt-country of "N.Y.C." with the Supersuckers
; and the haunted Celtic/Texas country balladry of "Ft. Worth Blues." Few artists have had a three-album run like that. In addition, there is another disc containing a Nashville concert from 1995 that features guest spots from Bill Monroe
and Harris, as well as a DVD with a gig at the Cold Creek Correctional Facility from 1996. It's all packaged in a handsome slipcase, with two separate digipacks illustrated by Tony Fitzpatrick
and a handsome booklet with the essays by Earle and Simon and complete lyrics. With the incentive of live material for old fans and the sheer brilliance on offer when these records are taken together, The Warner Bros. Years
is a powerful testament to Earle's second act.