Thursday, 9 July 2009

Keltner analysis of undiscussed Rock Hall Artists: Steve Earle

The site A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago, discusses various artists' credentials for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

After finishing my analysis of the Rock Hall backlog, I always intended to analyse artists who have never been discussed by the Nominating Committee, but still might have credentials to justify induction. The aim of the process is to find out whether, on the basis of the Keltner list for a Hall of Fame, the Nominating Committee really is completely ignoring artists who have undeniable credentials to be in the Hall.

I do admit that there are some problems with the criteria, especially given known biases of the Nominating Committee and how they effect who is already in the Hall, but still I cannot see any better alternative.

I have already done four Keltner tests on undiscussed artists:
My next artist, again first eligible in 2007/2008, is Steve Earle. Beginning as nominally a country artist with the EP Pink and Black that was issued in three limited editions of 1000 and has never made it to compact disc. It was 1986 before Earle hit the public's consciousness with his first full album Guitar Town, and he followed it up with a tour in which he supported both The Replacements and George Jones to show the broadness of his audience. Earle then recorded 1987's more rock-oriented Exit O and 1988's conceptual Copperhead Road, where the two halves had a completely different feel: one side of uptempo socially conscious piece and one of slower love songs with Maria McKee backing him. The album was his biggest seller and in Australia the title song became a top 30 single and is still played on classic rock radio.

However, drug addiction was taking its toll and 1990's The Hard Way showed the strain. After that, Earle did not release another studio album until the middle 1990s, with only two live albums Shut Up and Die like an Aviator and BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert: An Overview to complete a contract with MCA. In 1993, Earle went to jail for possessing drugs, but after his release he surprisingly recovered and has recorded as frequently as ever since 1994's Train a Coming. At first, Earle's following seemed to have deserted him and his late 1990s albums, more classically "country" in sound, rarely dented the Billboard Top 200. However, his political activism since the September 11 terrorist attacks has served to raise his profile once more. His latest album, 2009's Townes, his first covers album, reached #19 on the Billboard 200.

An evaluation of Steve Earle's Rock Hall credentials based on the Keltner criteria, which actually come from the Baseball Hall of Fame follows.

1) Was Steve Earle ever regarded as the best artist in rock music? (Did anybody, while Steve Earle was active, ever seriously suggest Steve Earle was the best artist in rock music?): No. Though he was well-received by rock critics and the public, Earle was never able to be seen as the trendsetter of his peak years in the late 1980s.

2) Was Steve Earle ever the best artist in rock music in his genre?: As a roots-rocker (which All Music describes him), probably not because of the competition from Springsteen and even Mellencamp or the Black Crowes in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, in country rock, Earle was definitely the main force behind the revitalisation of the genre. His only rivals would be the Jayhawks, and they never achieved the commercial success Earle did (not denting the Top 150 before 1995).

3) Was Steve Earle ever considered the best at his instrument?: Not really. Steve Earle was not on Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest singers and has rarely been regarded as a virtuoso either on vocals or guitar.

4) Did Steve Earle have an impact on a number of other artists?: Yes, definitely. Steve Earle undoubtedly was a key component in the evolution of the alt-country genre in the 1990s and is cited by pop-country artists of the early 2000s like Kasey Chambers as a key influence.

5) Was Steve Earle good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?: Yes, Steve Earle has been playing and recording as regularly as ever since he recovered from his drug problems in the middle 1990s that threatened his career whilst he was at an artistic and commercial peak and the tail end of the 1980s. In recent times, as noted above, Earle has even restored his popularity.

6) Is Steve Earle the very best artist in history that is not in the Hall of Fame?: Of course, one could never go so far with Steve Earle's Rock Hall credentials to seriously argue this. Steve Earle certainly has a place in history for having revitalised and reinvigorated a whole genre of music, but I do not think anybody could say that compares with inventing or popularising entirely new genres like bands like the Stooges, Captain Beefheart, Sonic Youth, Slayer or latterly Nirvana did.

7) Are most singers who have a comparable recording history and impact in the Hall of Fame?: I would think not, since few singer/songwriters outside the most explicitly popular are in the Hall of Fame, and those that are like Neil Young, Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell had much wider influence and higher commercial peaks. Moreover, previous innovators in the field of country-rock like the Flying Burrito Brothers have not been honored, so that inducting Steve Earle would be out of place in that context.

8) Is there any evidence to suggest that Steve Earle was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistical records?: There is really little to argue here.

9) Is Steve Earle the best artist in his genre that is eligible for the Hall of Fame?: Probably not, given that Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers have not yet been inducted.

10) How many #1 singles/gold records did Steve Earle have? Did Steve Earle ever win a Grammy award? If not, how many times was Steve Earle nominated?: Steve Earle had no Top 50 hit singles on Billboard, and only one gold record in the US in Copperhead Road. He won only one Grammy award, and that in 2007 well after his "peak" years. This thus can only be a case against his induction.

11) How many Grammy-level songs/albums did Steve Earle have? For how long of a period did Steve Earle dominate the music scene? How many Rolling Stone covers did Steve Earle appear on? Did most artists with this sort of impact go into the Hall of Fame?: As mentioned in the previous section, Steve Earle had only one Grammy-level album, and overall he never "dominated" the music scene, reaching his peak at a time when the genre he was in was in the background because of the overwhelming musical and cultural power of hip hop and thrash metal. This may also be the reason why he appeared on no Rolling Stone covers during the late 1980s.

12) If Steve Earle was the best artist at a concert, would it be likely that the concert would rock?: I have never heard much about his concert performances, but the desire for live albums during his peak years in the late 1980s does suggest he had some impact. Whether it is adequate I am far from sure though.

13) What impact did Steve Earle have on rock history? Was he responsible for any stylistic changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did Steve Earle change history in any way?: Steve Earle certainly had an impact on rock history in revitalising country-rock and roots-rock for the 1990s, and even in bringing this tough, rootsy approach to a quite large - if never "mass" - audience. However, as I have noted above, Steve Earle, during his peak years, was in the background because of other far more important changes in music.

14) Did Steve Earle uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?: By principle, I would say his drug problems in the late 1980s are a minus here, and that the way in which he today had been bashing George W. Bush is not the asset some think. Otherwise there is not much to say.

Verdict: If one were to induct Steve Earle, one would have to induct at least the Flying Burrito Brothers who came long beforehand, and potentially a number of other artists in the same genre whose merits remain to be tested but could hardly favour induction. Overall, therefore, despite his considerable impact on the genre I will have to give a don't induct.

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