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Steve Earle

The Warner Bros Years – 2013 (Rhino/Warner)

Reviewed by Michael Verity

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CDs by Steve Earle

On the surface, this five-disc box set appears to be another egregious exercise in major label money-grubbing, a study on how to squeeze every last penny out of those precious (and paid-for) catalogs. After all, what self-respecting fan of Steve Earle doesn't own "Train A' Comin'," "I Feel Alright" and "El Corazon" in at least four or five formats (including the hard-to-find mini-disc version)?

That said, it's kind of cool to have all three albums in one place, if for no other reason than to bore friends and family with stories of where you were in the '90s when you first heard Mystery Train or I Feel Alright or N.Y.C.. The opportunity to reminisce, however, doesn't justify the package's $40 price tag so luckily there's some bonus material to pave the way to purchase.

Disc four is a 14-song live set recorded at the Polk Theater in Nashville on Dec. 1, 1995. Those who saw Earle's acoustic outfit during those years will remember the work of mando player Peter Rowan, guitarist Norman Blake and bassist Roy Husky, Jr., their musicianship ably documented here on cuts like Hometown Blues and When Will We Be Married.

Equally important, the set includes three cuts featuring Emmylou Harris and another highlighting the great Bill Monroe. Bill's turn with Steve on Walls Of Time is charming while Emmylou's contributions on Rivers Of Babylon and Goodbye are most beautiful.

The final disc is the best part of the package. It's a live concert DVD recorded by MTV in 1996 at the Cold Creek Correctional Facility in Tennessee. Cold Creek is where Earle spent 11 months in prison for drug possession, a "time-out," he says, that saved his life. Backed by The Dukes, who were particularly incendiary at the time, this 10-song set shows Earle at his mid-'90s best: Feel Alright flat out rocks (as does Copperhead Road); Guitar Town rumbles and, as should be no surprise, Ellis Unit One is heartbreakingly poignant.

Edited into the concert are interviews with inmates who talk about why they're in jail, most of them serving sentences of at least 10 years for crimes committed under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Far from being preachy, the interviews are forthright and extremely sad. One inmate, a 21-year old sentenced to life in prison, speaks of a murder he committed in a blackout, a crime he doesn't even remember. Music notwithstanding, Steve Earle always delivers a message that can't be denied, and that makes this box set a worthwhile purchase.