BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
In a very real way, a re-release of Steve Earle’s three, and key, albums for Warner Bros. makes perfect sense. Coming on the heels of his release from prison where he had been sentenced for heroin abuse, they were comeback attempts of sorts after the twin promise of Guitar Town and Copperhead Road, two albums that delivered him to the fringes of sudden success. Now clean and in a position to reevaluate his life and his music, these three albums — Train A Comin’, I Feel Alright and El Corazon — documented his recovery and redemption, watershed moments in the rebirth of his career. Looking back, Train A Comin’ seems somewhat tentative, while I Feel Alright finds him returning to a more assertive stance. El Corazon showed Earle’s ability to make a masterpiece, with songs that hinted at political activism (“Christmas in Washington,” “Taneytown”), absolute resolve (“Here I Am”) and cautionary tales (“If You Fall”). Other triumphs would follow soon after on Earle’s E-Squared label – among them, The Mountain, a collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, and Transcendental Blues, his philosophical summation — but the Warners albums laid the course and set his trajectory in motion.
Thankfully, the good folks at Shout Factory didn’t opt to only offer these discs a second time around, but instead provided added enticement via two bonus extras, a stunning live recording from Nashville’s Polk Theater, recorded around the same time as I Feel Alright, and a live DVD from the Cold Creek Correctional Facility where Earle had earlier been incarcerated. Live recordings from Earle are relatively rare, which makes the Polk Theater concert alone worth the price of admission. A trio of tunes with special guest Emmylou Harris, and stunning takes on “I’m Looking Through You” and “Copperhead Road” show an artist already in prime form. For its part, the Cold Creek film serves as both a documentary and social statement, and while Earle’s performance is captured mostly in shadows, the interviews with the inmates and the revelation that most of them were serving their sentences for drug possession is absolutely illuminating. Earle’s commitment to unwavering activism was clearly affirmed then and there.
DOWNLOAD: “Tecumseh Valley,” “Christmas In Washington,” “I’m Looking Through You” (live)