copperhead road cover - it's a skull and crossbones

Reflecting on: Steve Earle–Copperhead Road

Yeah, okay, so I’m going to refer to Steve Earle quite a lot in the next few days, so just get used to it. Ever since we heard about the new album, I’ve known I would do a reflection of Steve this week. The obvious choice would be Guitar Town–that’s the one album everyone seems to cite as his best, and it’s the album that Earle said inspired him to make this new record when he revisited it for its thirtieth anniversary. But Copperhead Road is the one I’m doing instead; for one, just because Guitar Town is more well-known, and also because the title track is such a signature song for Steve Earle and a timeless song in country music. It’s a song I’ve grown up hearing everywhere, and my final decision came to do this album when Brianna broke my heart by telling me she’d never heard that song.

Release Date: 1988
Style: country rock, almost like Red Dirt before we called it that
People Who Might Like This Album: fans of Texas and Red Dirt music, especially the harder-leaning stuff, maybe people who like stuff like Eric Church or Kip Moore
Standout Tracks: “Copperhead Road,” “The Devil’s Right Hand,” “Snake Oil,” “Nothing But a Child”
Reflections: All right, so this was cool for me, because I know some Steve Earle songs, but I’m not overly familiar with his albums. It wasn’t a first-listen sort of experience when I played Copperhead Road for this piece, but it also wasn’t something I knew like the back of my hand. What struck me that I’ve not really thought about before is the style; in 1988, you had stuff like George Strait and Keith Whitley and Randy Travis fighting for a more traditional sound on country radio, fighting to take back country from the more pop-influenced stuff–and then there’s this, which is just totally different from any of that. Nowadays, you get so many mainstream artists blending country and rock–some do it well like Eric Church and occasionally Kip Moore, which is why I mentioned them above, and some just release arena rock with no country influence. The point is, it’s normal; that’s basically what the entirety of Red Dirt music sounds like. in 1988, this was a very unique sound, and like I say, I’ve never really taken time to consider that fully.
I mentioned the title track, and now I have to say, if you’ve made it to this point in your journey without hearing “Copperhead Road,” I’m frankly a little shocked; it’s just such a classic, at least where I’m from. I heard it all the time growing up, at various events, bars, wedding receptions, etc. Anyway, it’s a fun song about a Vietnam veteran whose family made moonshine, and after the war, he uses that knowledge to grow and sell marijuana “down copperhead Road.” “Snake Oil” is another fun one; I’m reminded a little listening to this record that stuff can be fun and upbeat and still be well-written, a lesson mainstream Nashville could learn. But there are some serious moments too, like the closer, a stripped-back religious song called “Nothing but a Child.” It’s probably the most country one here.
I don’t think Steve Earle has always put out good music; in fact, I’m more excited for Friday’s release from him than I have been for one of his records in years. But those early albums were great, and you should check them out. And yeah, that goes for Guitar Town as well, even though I didn’t write about it.

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5 thoughts on “Reflecting on: Steve Earle–Copperhead Road”

  1. Nothing against Guitar Town AT ALL, but I actually like Copperhead Road better. “Johnny Come Lately” is worth the price all by itself, and I also liked the title track, “Snake Oil,” and “Back to the Wall.” (Not a real big fan of TDRH, but I can tolerate it.) I’ll admit the album loses some steam for me in the second half, but that first half is so damn good that it more than makes up for it.

    Cool reflection on a great album.

      1. De nada!

        Also, good call on characterizing it as “Red Dirt before there was Red Dirt.” One could probably also call Steve Earle part of the first generation of Texas country music along with the likes of Robert Earl Keen, Jerry Jeff, John Prine, Billy Joe Shaver, and all those guys โ€” Texas Music 1.0, if you will. (I say that because I’ve heard the movement from 2000-on with Pat Green, Cory Morrow, Roger Creager, and all those guys referred to as Texas Music 2.0. Makes a lot of sense if you think about it.)

    1. Yes – “Johnny Come Lately!” This is my favourite song on the album.

      Overall, I do prefer Guitar Town – I find it to be more consistent throughout, but Copperhead Road is excellent too. So far, I’ve only listened to the new album once and it’s quite good.

      And The Mountain is right up there for me in terms of Steve Earle albums.

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