Guitar Town(Expanded Edition) (MCA Nashville)

Hey pretty baby, are you ready for me? asks Steve Earle during the first few seconds of Guitar Town, sounding like a man aching to prove himself and absolutely certain that he can. No wonder -- Steve had been kicking around Nashville for a long while and had already missed a couple of grabs at the brass ring when his debut album was released in 1986.

Luckily, the world was ready for Steve Earle -- with the New Traditionalist moment in full swing, Steve's gritty, raw-boned brand of country got noticed, big-time. Fifteen years and umpteen imitators later, Guitar Town has lost the shock of the new, but none of its appeal. These days it's regarded as a classic -- and this new reissue treats it accordingly, decking out the original album with one bonus track (a pounding '86 live take on Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper") and new liner notes from Steve himself.

The main attraction, though, continues to be the 10 towering songs Guitar Town always had -- a collection of rough-hewn slices of real life that continues to resonate. The Top 10 title track kicks off the album with an all-about-Steve introduction to the singer's rambling ways, a promise he immediately lives up to by traveling through heartbreak balladry ("My Old Friend The Blues"), social commentary ("Good Ol' Boy " [Gettin' Tough]") and even a lullaby ("Little Rock 'n' Roller") without ever stumbling.

In the years to come, that restless spirit would take Steve far afield, as he explored hard rock, bluegrass and Celtic music -- along with heroin abuse, prison and, thankfully, recovery. As the first step on that perilous but rewarding journey, Guitar Town still sounds like -- as Steve describes it in the liner notes -- "a good start."

-- C.N.

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