Steve Earle, “Guitar Town”


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In 1966 John Sebastian, in the song “Nashville Cats,” wrote “There’s thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville.” Today there are probably a hundred times that many people in the Nashville area who, if not professionally, can play at least a couple chords on a guitar. Beginning especially since Chet Atkins hung his shingle on Music Row, Nashville has been known as “guitar town.”

By the mid-1980s Steve Earle had been kicking around Nashville for a decade, playing bass for Guy Clark and having his songs cut by such artists as Johnny Lee and the late Carl Perkins. But his own recording career was going nowhere until he hooked up with producer Tony Brown at MCA Records. In 1986 MCA released Earle’s album Guitar Town, and the title track became an anthem for road musicians and helped establish Earle as a foremost practitioner of what some critics called “twang-rock.”

The title song from Guitar Town is the tale of a Nashville-based road musician who’s Texas-bound for some shows, and it doesn’t simply address the stereotypes of road life that a travelling artist can identify with, like motel living, female companionship and the rush of being on stage. Earle writes about the road life in a way that a non-picker can understand, maybe can even see himself or herself living. Anyone who’s spent any time travelling, with a band or not, knows what it’s like to “hear the steel belts hummin’ on the asphalt.”

Like most of the album it came from, this song is as well-crafted as it gets. Each of the three verses stand on their own as individual stories, and when combined with the “B” section (which some people may or may not count as a bridge), you’ve got a two-and-a-half minute movie that leaves the listener in the driver’s seat, hitting the road for the next town once the equipment is loaded.

The song, in the key of G, has a distinctive guitar line that lot of people have driven themselves crazy trying to figure out. The secret to playing that line is dropped-D tuning, meaning the low E string is tuned down to D, allowing the line to be played on the bottom two strings.

“Guitar Town” was responsible for launching the career of a writer who, if he hasn’t had a lot of commercial success, has been responsible for influencing a generation of writers and artists by showing them that they can achieve their dreams on their own terms and at least make a living at it. And in addition to being responsible for some great songs, Steve Earle is also responsible for another great writer, his son Justin Townes Earle.

“Guitar Town”

Hey pretty baby are you ready for me
It’s your good rockin’ daddy down from Tennessee
I’m just out of Austin bound for San Antone
With the radio blastin’ and the bird dog on
There’s a speed trap up ahead in Selma Town
But no local yokel gonna shut me down
‘Cause me and my boys got this rig unwound
And we’ve come a thousand miles from a Guitar Town

Nothin’ ever happened ’round my hometown
And I ain’t the kind to just hang around
But I heard someone callin’ my name one day
And I followed that voice down the lost highway
Everybody told me you can’t get far
On thirty-seven dollars and a jap guitar
Now I’m smokin’ into Texas with the hammer down
And a rockin’ little combo from the Guitar Town

Hey pretty baby don’t you know it ain’t my fault
I love to hear the steel belts hummin’ on the asphalt
Wake up in the middle of the night in a truck stop
Stumble in the restaurant wonderin’ why I don’t stop

Gotta keep rockin’ why I still can
I gotta two pack habit and a motel tan
But when my boots hit the boards I’m a brand new man
With my back to the riser I make my stand
And hey pretty baby won’t you hold me tight
We’re loadin’ up and rollin’ out of here tonight
One of these days I’m gonna settle down
And take you back with me to the Guitar Town

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