Rant ‘N’ Roll: Steve Earle Is Our Woody Guthrie

BETHLEHEM, PA—The Sands Entertainment Center has a lot going on every night but this night, April 26, is special. Steve Earle’s in town and it’s the first night of the tour, a 38-city worldwide trek that ends July 28 in Canada and hits Montana and Colorado as well as Paris, Scotland, England, Germany, Holland and Ireland.

The new album, The Low Highway, is SO good (one of the best of the year…if not THE best) Earle gambled on the crowd swallowing all 12 tracks despite a wealth of material to draw upon since his acclaimed 1986 Guitar Town debut. In a satisfying 26-song, two-hour set that seemed loose like a dress rehearsal (which most opening nights are on a big tour), Earle’s snarling vocals captivated the attention of us diehards (of which there were many within the sparse crowd). This was no casual crowd. You don’t go see Steve Earle casually. His righteous indignation over a multitude of topics spills out within his lyrics and between-song raps. To his credit, he doesn’t proselytize, but does get his points across. After all, this is a guy who up and moved out of his native Texas because Governor George W. Bush was so fond of executing people. One new song, in fact, “Burnin’ It Down,” goes “I’m thinkin’ ‘bout burnin’ the Wal-Mart down.” Now that’s angry! Musically and lyrically, it wouldn’t be out of place on Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball. Bruce, on one song, says, “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight” (“Jack Of All Trades”). Well, just like Earle isn’t about to commit arson anytime soon, Springsteen doesn’t have a gun (and that’s part of his point). Neither is about to get violent. But it’s the seething anger and resentment over our abject powerlessness in a society where money trumps justice that fuels part of the art of both artists.

Steve Earle once sang “come back Woody Guthrie,” knowing that we need someone to voice our frustrations, fears and doubts. Guthrie (1912-1967) was the voice for those who had no voice. The initial inspiration for a young Bob Dylan, Guthrie tackled topics no other folk singer would dare touch. And so does Earle. In that sense, he is our Woody Guthrie. More than a country singer, more than a bluegrass/rock singer-songwriter, Steve Earle has achieved icon status because of his poetry, his prose (read his 2011 novel I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive), his oh-so-Southern rubber-band drawl of a voice like the late Levon Helm only gruffer, and his realness.

I went with a friend who loves rock ‘n’ roll, does not like country music (probably because of the constant crap on country radio), never heard of Steve Earle, but has open ears. He has a friend who laughed at the thought of him going to see some country music. Texted during the show if he liked the country music, he texted back, “Dude, you would love this guy.” Maybe that has something to do with the fact that although Steve Earle comes from a long line of Texas troubadours , heavily influenced by the legendary Townes Van Zandt (1944-1997), as a bona fide baby boomer, he grew up in the era of that original rock ‘n’ roll spark of Buddy Holly, Elvis, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry…thus, when he goes into his only Top 10 hit, “Copperhead Road,” HE ROCKS.

Upcoming events at the Sands Entertainment Center feature Korn (May 23), Buckcherry (May 29), Weird Al (June 4), Billy Idol (June 9), Willie Nelson (June 16), Dwight Yoakam (July 3), Slash (July 16) and Cheech & Chong (July 28). You’ll find me there at Willie and Dwight. You can buy me a drink.