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COUGAR COUSIN : * * * * Great Balls of Fire * * * Good Vibrations * * Maybe Baby * Running on Empty :

June 21, 1987|RANDY LEWIS

* * 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.

When Earle simply rocks , he does justice to the legacy of another famous Texan--Buddy Holly--with his exuberant, hiccuping, stuttering vow in "I Love You Too Much." Exhibiting more vocal and instrumental authority than on "Guitar Town," he and his Dukes band lock into an irresistible Tex-Mex groove in the bittersweet "San Antonio Girl."

In the end, Earle suggests that life's road is always worth traveling, despite detours that may be disappointing, frustrating, painful or just uneventful. Come to think of it, you could say the same thing about "Exit O" as well.

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