NEW YORK — Steve Earle doesn't know whether he should be excited or nervous about all the glowing reviews he's received for his debut album, "Guitar Town."
Put yourself in his place: Here's a country- and rock-influenced singer-songwriter who scrambled for almost half his 31 years trying to get an opening in the music business--and suddenly he's being compared to people like Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty and Tom Petty.
Aware of the dangerously high expectation levels being raised by all the praise, Earle almost seems to take comfort in the one negative review that he has seen.
"This guy in Boston thinks I am the Archie Bunker of rock or something," Earle said during an interview on the rooftop lounge of a bargain-priced hotel here. "He said I represented the new conservatism in rock. . . . He didn't even see it as a country album."
The critic's suspicion apparently revolves around the imagery in some of Earle's blue-collar themes.
In the autobiographical title track, Earle describes the restless ambition of someone in a small town trying to beat the odds against making it big in the music business:
Nothin' ever happened 'round my hometown
And I ain't the kind to just hang around ... Everybody told me you can't get far
On thirty-seven dollars and a Jap guitar.
In "Good Ol' Boy," he deals with working-class resentment in a small Texas town where good jobs and sweet dreams are equally distant.
I got a job and it ain't nearly enough
A twenty thousand dollar pickup truck
Belongs to me and the bank and some funny talkin'
Man from Iran.
About his choice of touchy words, Earle said, "The politics in a song when you are writing in the first person is the politics of the character, not necessarily the politics of the writer. I'm trying to write about the things I see happening around me and how people react to them, not just the things that happen to me.
"But sometimes they do coincide. . . . Like I never thought 'Jap guitar' was an issue. I never meant it to be derogatory. It was just part of the color of the story."
Still, Earle agreed to change the phrase to "cheap guitar" on the "Guitar Town" single to ease record company concerns that radio stations might not play the record in its original form.
However, he balked at changing the line about the banker in "Good Ol' Boy."
"That was meant to be derogatory because it was supposed to represent the feelings of the character in the song," said Earle. "The guy is angry because he's falling behind economically. That's the whole theme of the song."
(Sample lyrics from "Good Ol' Boy":
Just my luck
I was born in the land of plenty
Now there's not enough. )
Earle--a refreshingly unaffected Texan who speaks and sings with a down-home drawl--took a drag from a cigarette, then continued.
"Reagan being in office has given many people in this country a false idea of what is happening. Springsteen said it in this show on his last tour. He was making this pitch for food banks and he said, 'There are a lot of folks out there that the trickle-down (economic) philosophy hasn't trickled down to yet.'
"I identify with a lot of that (frustration). I have got an eighth-grade education, so when I have needed to do some (regular) work when I couldn't make it just with my music, I have a hard time finding something. I never made more than $7,000 a year in my life until about three or four years ago."
Earle's music can be described with equal accuracy as "country-influenced rock" or "rock-influenced country." In today's tight radio formats, that can cause problems. Program directors can deal with artists who are mostly country or mostly rock, but they have a hard time when their allegiance isn't quite clear.
After years of being unable to get either country or rock radio to accept fellow Texan Joe Ely, MCA Records is nervous about running into the same roadblock with Earle. Indeed, there has been disagreement within the company on whether to present him as a country act or a rock act.
MCA's pop-oriented Los Angeles headquarters recommended that Earle make his L.A. debut at Club Lingerie, the trendy rock showcase in Hollywood, while the label's Nashville office suggested the Palomino, the country stronghold in North Hollywood. Instead, Earle has opted for the more neutral Roxy, where he's due Wednesday. (He'll be at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano next Sunday.
How does Earle classify his music?
"I am a country act and I am not ashamed of it," he said, lighting another cigarette. "That's why I signed with the Nashville division of MCA. But I would like to think I can appeal to some of the people who like Bruce's records or John Fogerty's records because I certainly love those records.