Steve Earle and Nashville had had just about enough of one another once it came time for him to cut his third album in 1988. Earle's first two albums, Guitar Town and Exit 0, had sold well and earned enthusiastic reviews, but his stubborn refusal to make nice, his desire to make more rock-influenced albums, and the faint but clear Leftism in his populist lyrical stance made him no friends at MCA's Nashville offices, and his growing dependence on heroin didn't help matters one bit. Earle was moved to MCA's Los Angeles-based Uni imprint, and he headed to Memphis to cut his third album, Copperhead Road. The result improbably became one of Earle's strongest albums; between its big drum sound, arena-sized guitars, and a swagger that owed more to the Rolling Stones and Guns N' Roses than country's New Traditionalists, Copperhead Road was the unabashed rock & roll album Earle had long threatened to make, but his attitude and personality were strong enough to handle the oversized production, and the songs showed that for all the aural firepower, this was still the same down-home troublemaker from Earle's first two albums. The moonshiner's tale of the title cut, the gunfighter's saga of "The Devil's Right Hand," and the story of two generations of soldiers in "Johnny Come Lately" (with the Pogues sitting in as Earle's backing band) were all tough but compelling narratives rooted in country tradition, and their rock moves updated them without robbing them of their power. And if the songs about love that dominate the album's second half don't have the same immediate impact, "Even When I'm Blue," "You Belong to Me," and "Once You Love" are honest and absorbing reflections of the heart of this dysfunctional romantic. Copperhead Road's production, which occasionally borders on hair metal territory, dates it, but the fire of Earle's performances and the strength of the songs more than compensates, and this album still connects 20 years on: if he had been able to hold himself together and make a few more records this strong, it's hard to imagine how big a star he could have become.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming