Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark

Imagine our disappointment in hearing the recent news that Steve Earle's excellent 1992 CD Train a Comin' had been discontinued by its label. That sparse but powerful record -- which jump-started Earle's stalled, post-rehab career -- always deserved a wider audience but instead is being benched. It proves once again -- as if anyone needed further proof -- there is no justice and little logic in the music business.

But rather than mourn one CD's demise, we'll celebrate the release of two others that -- like Train a Comin' -- give Earle and his fans a chance to look back on his multifaceted career while looking forward at the same time. Sidetracks isn't so much a trip down memory lane as it is a trip back to the table for a second helping of some overlooked, but mostly choice, Earle cuts. According to Earle's liner notes, the disc is not made up of outtakes, but "rather, stray tracks, recorded at different times for different reasons that I am very proud of and are either unreleased or underexposed."

Included in the batch are a string of songs that Earle did for Hollywood paychecks that in some cases outshine the flicks they were intended to serenade. There is an affecting alternate take of the grim "Ellis Unit One" from Dead Man Walking. And the frayed "Me and the Eagle" -- recorded for The Horse Whisperer -- which achieves a high-lonesome beauty that the saddle-soap-stained tear-jerker aimed for but missed.

And as further testament to his versatility, Earle sounds strangely at home covering Nirvana's "Breed," equally relaxed on the disc's bluegrass and Celtic rave-ups and happier than hell fronting the Supersuckers on "Creepy Jackelope Eye."

Together at the Bluebird Café is a far more subdued record that pairs Earle with two of his early mentors, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. The reunion is obviously a lot of fun for Earle, and it shows, as he revisits his own early gems such as "Copperhead Road," "Tom Ames' Prayer" and "My Old Friend the Blues" in a low-key but spirited manner.

But Clark and the late Van Zandt give him a run for his money and at times steal the show. Clark's tribute to his father "Randall Knife" is full of true sentiment, but not sentimentality. And Van Zandt, sounding worn down, delivers nice renditions of "Pancho and Lefty" and "Tecumseh Valley." But it is Van Zandt's anecdote about a pair of pliers, a bottle of whiskey and his own efforts to make good on a lost bet involving one of his gold teeth that makes for a funny, if slightly painful, high point to the record.

Nashville really doesn't make 'em like this anymore.


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