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“Dolby’s Rupees: Steve Earle – ‘Fort Worth Blues’”

I’m just going to offer a disclaimer right away on this post: don’t read the rest of it if you’re not sad right now. As it turns out, we’ve had a string of like seven cloudy July days in a row here in the Midwest, so I thought these proceedings might be moderately appropriate. This being said, this project is likely to induce some on-the-spot crying, like that GEICO commercial with Lisa Loeb in it.

A lot of you probably know San Antonio’s Steve Earle from his smash hit “Copperhead Road,” which I seem to have heard ad nauseam on every juke box I’ve ever frequented. Well, I’m here to tell you that, unlike with Franz Ferdinand and “Take Me out” or Alice in Chains with “Man in the Box,” he actually has other songs out. 

Actually, El Corazon (1997), which means “the heart” in Spanish, is a completely classic album within commercial folk rock. It’s got the vocal twang of your Hank Williams’ or your Marshall Tucker Bands of the world, with production urbane and robust enough, aligned roughly with T-Bone Burnett and the Wallflowers album, to infuse it with plenty of radio potential. 

At its core, still, it’s an achievement in songwriting, as all the songs are credited to Earle, they’re all great and they’re all tracks that Wilco, My Morning Jacket or The Lumineers would sound good covering. My favorite might be “Poison Lovers,” on which Siobhan Kennedy takes guest vocals for verse two, unleashing relationship tension and vindictiveness all the culminate in the beautiful chorus of “Why do we do this to each other? / I guess we were always poison lovers”. 

There’s something that amounts roughly to a “Siamese Dream syndrome” with certain albums and that is when one LP is just packed with what’s almost a surplus of climax, of feeling and of drama, to near make it off-putting. Actually, I’d slot the Grateful Dead’s authoritative live album Europe ’72 within this category, as that epic project just has so many classic songs and hooks and is a little short on the “jamming” element so sovereign within Live/Dead (1969). 

On El Corazon, which I think we’ll find is poignantly titled within this discussion, once the end of the album comes (“Fort Worth Blues” is the last song) we’ve already come through multiple numbers specificially dealing with relationship-borne heartbreak, from the aforementioned, to “If You Fall”; to “I Still Carry You around”; to “The Other Side of Town,” which is almost even more haunting than the basic breakup model. So in this way, you could amputate “Fort Worth Blues” from El Corazon and it would still be an album rife with ample, plangent emotion. 

One particularly blood-curdling thing about “Fort Worth Blues,” though, is that Earle actually doesn’t explicate the exact malady that’s plaguing him. All references to all parties are made indirectly and implicitly. For this reason, it took me until just the other day, about nine years after I first discovered this album, to actually connect with what the He** is going on, because on a glance “Fort Worth Blues” comes across as a sort of playful travelogue on sociology. Basically, the first two verses deal with a second-person interest of Earle’s: the subject is trapped in Fort Worth, generally held as a city lacking in glamor and luster (I’ve come to find out since via a YouTube video that the 16th-largest city in America is famous for an annual stockyards rodeo, but not much more, obviously). 

When verse three begins, we pretty much just have a melancholy landscape of barrenness and desolation, pertaining specifically to this party we find stuck in Fort Worth, a condition that by this time has been juxtaposed with various quips like “Colorado’s always clean and healin’ / And Tennesse in spring is green and cool / It never really was your kind of town / But you went around with the Fort Worth Blues”. So what we have constructed here before us basically is an image, a persona, of melancholy, of discontent, before life and before Fort Worth, within which the denizen is apparently trapped by his or her own laziness or fear of change. 

The third verse comes around and focuses in, within first person, on the narrator himself. It starts out abstract and imagistic, with the observation that “There’s a full moon over Galway Bay tonight” (as is generally observed, full moons have always been conducive to creativity, or heightened sense of being, if you prefer). The positive anecdotes on various places apart from Fort Worth subside and we get “Amsterdam was always good for grievin’ / And London never fails to leave me blue / And Paris never was my kind of town / So I walked around with the Fort Worth blues”. He is grieving. He’s grieving various things here, one of which, obviously, on the surface, is how bad he misses Fort Worth and his home state of Texas. And it took me a long time to realize this, but he’s also grieving the rejection and dismissal he’s received from the party which does occupy Fort Worth, even against his or her will, at that. This last aspect makes it even more painful, no doubt — to know that you’re subservient to an existential/aesthetic phenomenon that even, in itself, feels like a mistake. Earle within this narrative is relegated to inferiority of a mistake, perhaps not unlike Chris Robinson’s observation in “Sister Luck” of “Feelin’ second fiddle to a dead man”. We typically think of blues as the primary vehicle for sublimation of extreme heartbreak and dejection, but I think both The Black Crowes with “Sister Luck” and Steve Earle with “Fort Worth Blues” showed us that commercial alternative rock within ’90s, when it’s done right, is capable of billowing a wave of heartbreak and mournfulness capable of filling the skies, and our consciousnesses, making even the stars weep out a little, to help to satiate the earthly inferno. Part of the beauty of El Corazon, for that matter, just to reiterate, is how distinctly country it is in style, with “Fort Worth Blues” just a guitar/vox number sung, for that matter, in Steve Earle’s distinctly Southern dialect that infuses the music with a lively sort of geographical authenticity, to complement the copious emotion governing the work. 

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