An engaging if uneven debut from one of country rock’s most celebrated singer-songwriters.
Earle enjoys the usual advantages—and faces the usual problems—of new writers whose names are already well known from their work in other fields. Like Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas, and Jewel, Earle has an eager audience ready to pounce on and adore any new material; on the other hand, readers not initiated in the Steve Earle cult might have the knee-jerk reaction of not taking his literary work seriously. The mitigating circumstance in this celebrity-fiction is that in his songs Earle has already demonstrated his storytelling skills—not to mention that he’s lived a grittier life (heroin, prison, rehab) than most of the famous who “try their hand” at fiction. The characters here are downtrodden, solitary types: a crack-addicted musician, a Vietnam vet flying drugs to Mexico, etc. Earle’s narrative voice sounds like an sage in a smoky bar, and several of the stories’ openings are strikingly deft: “Pick any means of transportation, public or private, over land, sea, or air. No matter which direction you travel, it takes three hours to get out of L.A.”; or “Harold Mills died last night, alone in his $75-a-week room at the Drake Motel, and I’m probably the only motherfucker on Murfreesboro Road that misses him. Hell, I’m the only one that knows he’s gone.” After such strong beginnings, though, Earle can’t sustain the pitch, and as his descriptions go flat some of his tales slip into melodrama. Nevertheless, the best two or three—particularly “The Red Suitcase”—have all the earthy virtues of a good folk song.
An appealing collection, though Earle fans will find a lot more to enjoy than everybody else.