I Feel Alright can’t be pigeonholed – it’s just good old American music.
There’s a long history of great art arising from fraught circumstances and bad art resulting from comfort and complacency. However, this does not mean great art only comes from adversity, an attitude can be especially damaging in a rock music world where adversity often translates to taking tons and tons of drugs. Just because a bunch of classic albums were made by musicians hooked on smack doesn’t make smack a great musician. Don’t believe me? Try shooting up and see how long it takes you to write the next “I’m Waiting for the Man.” I’ll wait.
For every drug-fueled Exile on Main Street there’s an I Feel Alright – a fantastic, career-defining album made after the artist in question got sober. Steve Earle would be the first to tell you that kicking drugs was not only beneficial for his health and, you know, ability to continue to walk around and breath and stuff, but was also the best career move he ever made. Twenty years later, the album still holds up.
By the mid-‘90s, Earle’s once thriving career had almost irreparably stalled as a result of his drug use. By 1994, he hadn’t toured in two years, had been dropped by MCA and had been arrested twice for drug possession. Had his career ended there, he would be remembered today as a guy who made a few good country-rock albums in the ‘80s. But it didn’t, and after getting clean, Earle released a string of records that solidified his reputation as one of the most influential Americana songwriters of the last three decades. So yeah, things turned out OK for him without the drugs.
Earle’s mid-‘90s comeback grew around an acclaimed trilogy which started with 1995’s Grammy-nominated Train a Comin’ and ended with 1997’s El Corazon. Yet I Feel Alright, from 1996, is perhaps the most enduring.
Unlike its mostly acoustic and bluegrass-influenced predecessor, here Earle presented a broader survey of his influences and talents from backwoods blues to straight-ahead rock. In fact, with its spare, roots instrumentation, broad influences and Earle’s perpetual ability to turn a phrase, there’s an argument to be made that I Feel Alright represents the most comprehensive and easily digestible summary of post-Uncle Tupelo Americana/alt-country. If you’re curious about what’s been going on in the genre since the dawn of the ‘90s, this is as good a place as any to start.
Ironically, many of the best songs on the album sound beyond genre. Take the title track. A standard chord sequence Woody Guthrie could have come up with places it squarely within the folk tradition. Earle’s signature nervous twang adds a hillbilly element. The muscular drumming, along with Earle’s growling, chest-beating delivery, take it into the rock realm. It doesn’t fit snugly into any genre, which makes it a universally appealing pump-up song–well, that and Earle’s periodic, mesmerizing upstrokes on the rhythm guitar. It’s amazing how such seemingly minor changes to the strumming pattern make such an enormous, unconventional difference.
As a result “I Feel Alright” has been used as a soundtrack to great effect in properties as disparate as Talladega Nights and “The Wire,” the latter of which starred Earle in a recurring role as a drug counselor named Walon (and really, getting Bubbles off dope may well be Earle’s greatest accomplishment).
Other songs, like the rambunctious “Hard-Core Troubadour” and the feel-good Lucinda Williams duet “You’re Still Standin’ There” similarly straddle genres to the point that it’s useless to try to pin them down. That’s not to say Earle doesn’t display a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of and appreciation for specific strains of American musical history, from the Southern soul of “Hurtin’ Me, Hurtin’ You” to the rockabilly of “Poor Boy” to the pickin’ and grinnin’ bluegrass story “Billy and Bonnie” to the Delta blues-influenced “CCKMP” and “South Nashville Blues.” The former in fact points to Earle’s triumph over addiction, a haunting, stormy rumination on Earle’s struggles. Ultimately, I Feel Alright can’t be pigeonholed – it’s just good old American music.