Joint Recordings of October 1990: The Hard Way & Stolen Moments

STEVE EARLE & the Dukes: The Hard Way
MCA MCA-6430 (LP), MCAD-6430 (CD). Steve Earle, Joe Hardy, prods.; Joe Hardy, eng. DDA/DDD. TT: 55:53

JOHN HIATT: Stolen Moments
A&M 75021 5310 1 (LP), 2 (CD). Glyn Johns, prod.; Glyn Johns, Jack Joseph Puig, engs. AAA/AAD. TT: 52:57

Steve Earle and John Hiatt are both all rock, all country. I listened to Earle's Guitar Town and Hiatt's Bring the Family many times a day for weeks after their releases, and I almost never do that.

Both men sing like they're fighting an almost-losing battle against quicksand. The difference is that while Earle sounds like he couldn't help seeking out that shaky ground, just to see how it felt, Hiatt seems to have lost his footing on his way to a good time, and is now carefully retracing his steps to make sure he doesn't do it again.

Earle is an old-fashioned guy who's not sure which he loves most, his car or his girl, and he's not dealing with modern life very gracefully. His bicep tattoo on the album cover says "Fear No Evil," and I do believe Earle's trying to keep that muscle pumped. The Hard Way is perfectly titled; listening to these tortured songs, I hear a man constantly on the edge of becoming the quintessential American loser (and the quintessential American tragic hero) who, with the best of intentions, does nothing but screw up, redeeming himself only with his absolute determination to get back up on that white horse and ride.

His liner note sets it up: "In the last 3 or 4 years, I've been trying to figure out what one does with one's self once one's dreams have come true...I think I know the answer—find another dream—FAST!!!" That desperation is in every song Earle sings—that's right—the hard way.

Since his 1986 debut with Guitar Town—probably the best country album of the '80s—Earle's records have rocked harder and harder, until something like The Hard Way's "This Highway's Mine (Roadmaster)" could almost be called heavy-metal country, in music and lyrics: "Sometimes the only difference tween me and this machine / Is I run on desperation / She runs on gasoline."

But the seriousness, immediacy, and authenticity of Earle's art is most clear when comparing his "Billy Austin" to something like Springsteen's "Nebraska." The Boss's song concerns an unrepentant serial killer; Earle's tells of a murderer who turns himself in even though, as he sings, "I knew I should be feeling something / But I never shed tear one." And though "Nebraska," chilling as it is, is sung in the first person, I've never believed Springsteen is that person; Earle, his social conscience even stronger since Guitar Town, is so close to Billy Austin it's hard to tell them apart. Incredibly, this song protests capital punishment, but Earle refuses to load the dice in his own favor: "I ain't about to tell you / That I don't deserve to die...Could you take that long walk with me / Knowing hell is waiting there / Could you pull that switch yourself sir / With a sure and steady hand / Could you still tell yourself / That you're better than I am." Sobering stuff. Makes all that Willie/Waylon/Johnny/Kris "Highwayman" crap look (and sound) like the scam it is.

"West Nashville Boogie" is a terrifying picture of contemporary high-school life; minimal blues riffs and minimal lyrics about razors, white trash, and pistols hid down by the school. "Close Your Eyes" is Earle's usual end-of-side killer, a tradition he started on Guitar Town with "Down the Road" and "My Old Friend the Blues." (The last one still makes me think, every time I hear it, that Hank Sr. didn't die in the back of that car after all.)

The Steve Earle of Guitar Town is still alive on "Hopeless Romantics"—"Hopeless romantics are usually hopelessly true"—the sister song to "Fearless Heart" from that first album, even if none of The Hard Way's songs are carried by tunes as timeless. CD and LP are pretty close, the former a bit fresher in the highs; basic production style is big-beat drums, splashy, chimey electric guitar, and some interesting acoustic mandolin interludes.

Hell, that should be enough. The Hard Way is significant. If you haven't heard Guitar Town, buy it too. And if that doesn't mop up any remaining pockets of die-hard resistance to country music, John Hiatt should turn the trick.

Listeners who were disappointed—as I was—with Hiatt's last album, Slow Turning (reviewed in November 1988), should have no complaints about Stolen Moments, a return to the introspection-with-a-beat funk of his triumphant Bring the Family. Moments is Hiatt's tenth album (not counting Geffen's Y'all Caught? compilation), and it's a watershed and summation of sorts.

Lord, has this man grown up in the ten years since the neo-wavo/post-punk Costello-cloned Slug Line and Two Bit Monsters; his stuff could be easily called roots rock now, a la his sometime studio buddy Ry Cooder. And varied? As Hiatt said in a recent Billboard squib (Aug. 4, 1990), he can "go on 'Hee Haw' and two weeks later get a song cut by Iggy Pop. Or share the stage with the Neville Brothers and then sit next to Roy Acuff at the {Country Music Assn.} Awards."

I'm not sure I've ever heard such engaging songs about an imprisoning childhood or the recovery from an alcoholic adulthood. You don't have to know what these songs are about to thoroughly enjoy them, but paying close attention to their lyrics will give you an hour with a man who, unlike Steve Earle—who seems obsessed with his own drama, gripping as it is, almost to the point of monomania—sounds like he could just as easily hear out your problems as confess his own.

But most of all, and like Bring the Family, Stolen Moments is Hiatt's testimony to his own dumbstruck wonder at the miracle of life its simple self—of his wife's love for him, of his own love for his children, of the fact that he's even still alive—the album boils over with the sheer gratitude of someone who was sure he'd never make it. Like Family, Moments is about monogamy, responsibility, life-long commitment; it's a testament to Hiatt's insight, maturity, vulnerability, and seasoned good humor that he makes what most consider onuses sound like fun.

This sensibility pervades the entire album, but most of it's dealt with in the title cut as well: "Don't you know we're living in stolen moments / You steal enough it feels like we're stopping time." There are songs about Hiatt's Indiana childhood, and his father. There's his own passionate fatherhood in "The Rest of the Dream," shame and remorse in "Thirty Years of Tears": "Fair women have thrown me their lifelines / And I just pulled them in to the water's dark grin." "Bring Back Your Love to Me" is particularly naked: "I don't want no other lover / I got too much here at stake...Every night I sit and watch for you, baby / I pray to God you haven't found somebody else"—to a great Stax soul groove.

There's a song about a fellow rock'n'roll survivor ("Rock Back Billy"), an uncondescending one about Native Americans, and one about wisdom—now there's a word that seldom pops up in rock reviews—in the remarkable mixture of Zen and Christian imagery that is "Through Your Hands": "Don't ask what you are not doing / Because your voice cannot command / In time we will move mountains / And it will come through your hands."

The AAA LP is, yes, superior to the CD in warmth and depth; Glyn Johns's production is less bottom-heavy than for Slow Turning, a bit more metallic and wiry, less chunk-a-funk, but seems appropriate for this more introspective material. The Goners, Hiatt's Slow Turning band, are replaced here by names unfamiliar to me except for Little Feat's Billy Payne and Ritchie Hayward on a few cuts.

There's lots, lots more here that I'll leave for you to discover, but one thing I can't let slip by is Hiatt's singing: phrasing often like Randy Newman's, nailed fast to a huge, deep voice, utterly relaxed and never straining. The guy talks to you. Once you cut through the professionalism, artistry, and chops, this is what singing is supposed to be all about anyway. Like the music of The Band, Elvis's Sun sessions, the comic art of R. Crumb, and the sacred comic texts of the Firesign Theatre, John Hiatt's songs and singing make me feel prouder to be an American than any scrap of cloth dyed red, white, and blue.—Richard Lehnert