* * 1/2"EXIT O." Steve Earle. MCA. Maybe there are a million stories in the naked city, but there are considerably fewer opportunities in Small Town, U.S.A.--both for the characters in Steve Earle's songs and, alas, for Earle as a songwriter.
With last year's "Guitar Town," Earle established himself as Texas' most promising country rocker since Joe Ely blasted out of the Lone Star State a decade earlier.
On "Exit O," however, Earle tries too hard to live up to his critical acclaim as the New Voice of Rural America. Instead of infusing the common-man consciousness of Merle Haggard with the working-class rock 'n' roll soul of Bruce Springsteen, Earle often winds up sounding like a country cousin of John Cougar Mellencamp.
Several songs merely repeat what others have recently found in re-examining their familial and cultural roots. "No. 29" is a nostalgic reminiscence by a faded high-school football star that replays Springsteen's "Glory Days." And Mellencamp's "Rain on the Scarecrow" already said everything Earle's "The Rain Came Down" has to say about the American farmer's struggle against economic crises and governmental indifference.