With two good albums under his belt, “Guitar Town” from 1986 and “Exit O” from 1987, “Copperhead Road” was Steve Earle’s 3rd record for the MCA stable and he had clearly hit his song-writing stride. From the opening track it reeked of bar-drenched alcohol and chemical substances that weren’t exactly Milk of Magnesia and Aspirin. In other words, it was a great big ball of rockin’ fun - and that sense of kick-ass joy permeates its every track to this day. Released October 1988 in the USA on Uni 7 and MCA 1280 in the UK - like other big-hitters around that time - “Brothers In Arms” by DIRE STRAITS, “Kick by INXS and “…Nothing Like The Sun” by STING – it also had the then desirable DDD code on the back of its jewel case – a Full Digital Recording.
UK released 2 June 2008 - "Copperhead Road: Deluxe Edition" by STEVE EARLE is a 20th Anniversary remaster of that album with 17 live tracks thrown in on Disc 2 (many of which are previously unreleased).
DISC 1 (43:39 minutes)
Disc One offers just the album on its own and is a GAVIN LURSSEN remaster. His work on this is TRULY BEAUTIFUL. The sound literally leaps out of the speakers at you with a warmth and clarity that will thrill lovers of the album to the core. It was always a LOUD record as I say, and DDD, but that isn’t always good, because it can become hard on the ear - something you want to turn down rather than enjoy. But here the remaster is subtle. If I was to nail down what’s different – the DDD recordings of the time often had a clinical feel to them – like the essence of the live playing had been mastered away by the need for pure digital perfection. They sounded good for sure, but it often made the music itself, sound slightly soulless and gimmicky. Well this remaster seems to have taken that edge of the recordings and brought them back to life. You can HEAR the instrumentation now. The drums of KURT CUSTER hammer like Max Weinberg at his best without being too overbearing (Earle was a huge Springsteen fan at the time), the acoustic guitars and mandolins are all THERE in the mix too – a really great job done. Highlights would be the opening track, where the build-up is mind-blowing. When the band does kick in, you may find yourself resorting to unsightly air-guitar in your front room because you just can’t help it!! The guitar and drums that introduce “Back To The Wall” are just fantastic, while The POGUES and NEIL MacCOLL from THE BIBLE put in raucous stuff on “Johnny Come Lately” (recorded in London). GARRY W TALLENT, the bassist with Springsteen’s E-Street Band arranged the ‘gun’ song “The Devil’s Right Hand”. There are also two softer moments on the album that are just superb –“Even When I’m Blue” – as lovely a song as he’s ever written – while the country band TELLURIDE and Lone Justice’s MARIA McKEE turn up on the LP’s closer “Nothing But A Child”. McKEE in particular puts in really beautiful backing vocals on it - harking back to the glory days of Stevie Nicks on “Rumours” and “Tusk”. It ends the album on a real high note. The major disappointment here is the lack of outtakes or even demos or previously unreleased songs from the period. Which leads us to...
Disc 2 (78:17 minutes):
Disc 2 is entirely LIVE and is a very mixed bag indeed. First up is the CRAP SOUND. Having been treated to a fantastic blast on Disc 1, Disc 2 sounds like some poorly recorded radio show – it’s not quite as bad as a bootleg, but I’m afraid it isn’t far off it either. The recordings are hissy and strangely underwhelming. The crowd hollers through each song introduction and as it’s a small venue, it gets irritating real quick. There are a number of covers here - “Wheels’ is the CHRIS HILLMAN/GRAM PARSONS song from “The Gilded Palace Of Sin", the FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS debut album from 1969 and “Brown and Root” is a RODNEY CROWELL cover from the mid 1970s. Tracks 1 to 11 are all previously unreleased, recorded by the “Exit O” band in Raleigh, North Carolina on the 18h of November 1987. Track 12 was recorded in 1988 and is a cover version of Springsteen’s “Nebraska”. It turned up on a Spectrum Label CD called “The Collection” years back. Tracks 13 to 17 were recorded in Calgary, Canada in April of 1989 and featured as various b-sides the world over. (“Dead Flowers” is a Stones cover from “Sticky Fingers” and “Little Sister” is a George Trooper song). In truth, I can't imagine myself listening to these tracks ever again or considering them to be a 'bonus'.
The 4-way fold-out spread on the inside of the digipak gives you black & white photos of Earle most of which have been seen before - plus two colour shots – one of the beautiful blue Harley used for the sleeve and the other of him strumming an acoustic guitar. The 20-page booklet is hardly great either, a brief history of the album by roots music writer CHRIS MORRIS, lyrics, production credits - some photos - it's good, but hardly comprehensive. There's no inteview with Earle himself which would have explained what influenced whats song.
You can’t help but think that Universal should have remastered all three of his first albums “Guitar Town”, “Exit O” and this “Copperhead Road”, added some really good bonus tracks and be done with it. It would have been far better value than this slightly underwhelming experience. Fans will want the remaster of the album on this DELUXE EDITION for sure, but the casual buyer won’t need anything else.
To sum up then - a 5-star job on Disc 1 with a 3-star surplus on Disc 2.
PS: with regard to tape-remastering engineers GAVIN LURSSEN and ERICK LABSON - see also my reviews for The Crusaders “Gold” and Stephen Bishop’s “Careless” for LURSSEN - and Steppenwolf “Gold”, “The Complete Hits Singles” by Three Dog Night, “Buddy Holly” by Buddy Holly for LABSON. Fantastic work put in.