Saying Hello to Goodbye

Special to Bums Logic:  Guest columnist Mike Short on the beauty and impact of Steve Earle’s song “Goodbye,” recorded by Emmylou Harris.

Alternative country music is extraordinarily difficult to define. Musical labels can be meaningless and irrelevant at the best of times: after all is said and done, it is about the song. If they are used to pigeon-hole artists, then these generic labels go beyond that – listeners are effectively putting their favourite artists in musical straight-jackets, and setting themselves up for disappointment. But as long as no insurmountable barriers, masquerading as objective arbiters of truth, are erected, then the use of the term ‘alt-country’ as a loose guide, backed up by pertinent example and suggestion, can open up an enriched study of some of the highlights of modern American music.

As an example, let’s think about one particular recording of a specific song – one which, as I grew increasingly obsessed by alternative country, became my favourite song. The subjectivity of this choice of song is highlighted by the year of its release. Emmylou Harris released her album Wrecking Ball in 1995, by which time some of the other landmark alt-country bands had taken shape, made their seminal albums, and in the case of Uncle Tupelo, disbanded. How, then, can one song from this album, “Goodbye,” be considered an inspiration for a musical movement? Surely temporal realities put paid to any claims of significance the song may have? Well, to an extent this argument is magnetic and unanswerable. But the truth is somewhat deeper. Countless albums throughout the history of popular music could have founded a genre. As it turned out (and hindsight is a wonderful thing), some did and some didn’t. What brings a small number of isolated musical coincidences together and helps bring about some sort of loose coalition is a mysterious process. It may be down to overlapping personnel or social change. But in the case of alt-country, the song “Goodbye” at least represented, and even encouraged, the growth and coalescence of alternative country as some kind of organic phenomenon.

Steve Earle’s presence on this recording is no accident, and it is certainly not another celebrity guest spot, adding little but an interesting name on the sleeve: he wrote “Goodbye” himself. He is there to pass on the soul of the song, the essence of its story, from one of America’s great songwriters to the country’s foremost interpreter and shaper.

The song starts with a gentle, unobtrusive acoustic guitar figure, played by Earle himself. There are then some tentative spoken words in the background, and then Earle’s Southern drawl emerges, sounding far more laid back than when he is assaulting us with his usual barrage of acerbic verbiage: “two…one, two, three, four.” On cue, the acoustic introduction is overlaid by a firm but delicate hit of producer Daniel Lanois’ sound, as a rolling, muted, electric band enters the fray. And with that, Earle hands over his tragic ballad to Emmylou Harris and Lanois, to do with it as they see fit. Earle has been quoted as saying that to have Harris perform one of your songs is the highest compliment a songwriter can be paid, and his humility comes through in those couple of seconds: here’s my song. It starts like this. Okay, now it’s yours. The end result is a combination of Earle’s song-writing abilities, and Harris’ genius for interpretation. And what a combination it is. Continue reading →

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Carving a Heart in The Joshua Tree

They had to go all the way out there just to make the guitars echo like that.

Perhaps the least-cool thing to do in 2011 would be to write an essay on the greatness of U2’s The Joshua Tree album from 1987. I mean, you might get away with singing the praises of 1991’s Achtung Baby, seeing as it’s getting the deluxe makeover remaster reissue bonanza for it’s 20th anniversary this year. And it might be cool to write about The Joshua Tree being terrible and overrated, because the contrary opinion always generates interest.

While Achtung Baby has, for a while now, become the consensus “Best/Favorite” U2 album (itself a contrary opinion once upon a time), The Joshua Tree is the pinnacle and quintessential U2 effort, an epic rock album and in my opinion the best album by this hate-’em-if-ya-want-to legendary band. The two albums certainly represent not only the band’s peak, but also the collective moment when they pivoted. One of my favorite Bono quotes is his description of Achtung Baby as “four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.”

Let’s skip all the peripheral items that don’t matter (Bono’s politics and charitable efforts, whether or not U2 is “overrated”), strip away all the hype and bullshit, and simply discuss the music.

I’ll start where the album starts: “Where the Streets Have No Name.” This is the ultimate U2 song. Maybe it’s not their “best” pure song, but it might be my favorite and their most representative track. If someone had no clue, if they came from the future or the past or from another planet, you could just play that song and say THIS is what U2 is. Play it loud. The way the intro fades in and soon engulfs you in The Edge’s spider web of arpeggio notes drizzling down on you from the delay pedal. And then the bass changes notes and pretty soon the drums come running and racing in and you are charging toward something.

Continue reading →