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ROBERT HILBURN

Steve Earle--trying To Find His Musical Niche

May 31, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN

Steve Earle is hoping history doesn't repeat itself.

Earle, a 29-year-old Texan whose debut album has been released by MCA Records, is the most promising male "country-or-rock" recording artist to surface since Joe Ely in the late '70s.

That's a comparison that should send shivers up the back of any record company executive.

Radio program directors, whose decisions about what gets airplay still largely determine an artist's commercial fate, have trouble with anyone who doesn't define his music by radio's narrow formats.

If you clearly play country or clearly play rock, program directors can adjust. But you're in trouble if you mix the two sounds in ways that leave programmers confused over whether you're really country or rock.

Ely is one of the most dramatic victims of this conservative thinking. Musicians didn't have any trouble relating to his hard-edged country style, which mixed country's honky-tonk and rockabilly traditions. He was invited to join tours by such varied and respected country and rock acts as Willie Nelson, the Pretenders, Linda Ronstadt, the Clash and the Kinks. But country and rock radio stations generally ignored his critically acclaimed albums, and Ely's still looking for his first hit.

So, what about Earle?

He comes out of MCA's Nashville division and he sings with a drawl, so he's going to be considered country by most radio programmers. And the new album, "Guitar Town," has received enough country air play to crawl into the Top 50 country chart in Billboard magazine. But the truth is: An album of this quality in a more mainstream country style would be hailed as the discovery of the year in country music.

On a larger scale, Earle's music may be most appealing to the rock crowd that appreciates the roots-conscious, blue-collar focus of such contemporary figures as John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Don Henley and John Mellencamp.

Like them, he's an outsider in society who was raised to believe in the American Dream, but learns how distant that dream can be. He writes about small-town aspirations and disillusionment in a way that is reminiscent of each of those writers, but he never loses his own artistic voice.

The only song on "Guitar Town" that is a homage to anyone else is "Think It Over," which mixes the vocal and instrumental approach of Buddy Holly and the pre-"Heartbreak Hotel" Elvis Presley.

There are moments of autobiography in these songs--such as the title tune, which is about a youngster hitting the rock 'n' roll trail--and there are times when Earle is describing the frustrations he sees around him. In these, he touches on bitterness, irony and humor. A song like "Good Ol' Boy" has traces of all three:

Gettin' tough

Just my luck

I was born in the land of plenty

Now there ain't enough.

In "Someday," Earle tells us about a guy stuck in a job at a filling station on the interstate:

Pumping gasoline and countin' out - of - town plates

They ask me how far into Memphis, son, and where's the nearest beer

They don't even know that there's a town around here.

But the album isn't solely about chasing rock dreams and exorcising blue-collar frustrations. There's a lonely edge to "My Old Friend the Blues" that is reminiscent of Mickey Newbury's most affecting ballads, and "Little Rock 'n' Roller" is as pretty a lullaby as rock has produced.

MCA records is aware of the problem in finding the right audience for this "country-or-rock" musician, and the company is trying to tempt both audiences. In New York City next month, Earle will appear with Nicolette Larson in a country-flavored bill at the Bottom Line, then open for the Replacements on a rock show at the Ritz.

Earle is also expected to appear in Los Angeles within the next six weeks, but no site has been set. Whether it is a country or rock club, he's worth checking out. "Guitar Town" is one of the most endearing and exciting American debuts since Lone Justice's last year.

NEW FORUM THEATER: The Forum, in association with Avalon Attractions, is introducing a series of "modified seating" shows this summer. Instead of using all 18,600 seats, the concerts will be scaled down to a more intimate, 9,000-seat setting. This enables the building to compete with the Greek Theatre and Universal Amphitheatre for acts that would normally play smaller halls. Among the shows booked: a "Surf City USA" package featuring Jan & Dean, the Ventures and Dick Dale on June 16; a nostalgic British rock production including Donovan, Peter Noone and Billy J. Kramer on July 17; James Brown on Aug. 2; Waylon Jennings on Aug. 30; and Johnny Cash on Sept. 12.

LIVE ACTION: The Cure will headline the Forum on July 27, while Jackson Browne is due Aug. 17 at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre. Tickets for both shows go on sale Sunday. . . . Tickets also go on sale Sunday for two Universal Amphitheatre concerts: Julian Lennon on July 22 and Van Morrison on July 26. . . . Tickets for Stevie Nicks' June 29 stop at the Pacific Amphitheatre will go on sale Monday. . . . Manhattan Transfer will be at Irvine Meadows on July 19. . . . GTR, the group featuring Steve Hackett and Steve Howe, will be at the Wiltern Theatre on July 19. . . . John Anderson will be at the Crazy Horse on June 16 and at the Palomino on June 21. . . . Stan Ridgway appears June 19 at the Coach House.

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