Steve Earle & The Dukes
"It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry"
Original Dylan version found on Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
[Ed. note: Regular readers of this blog know that Bob Dylan is affectionately referred to as the "Patron Saint" of TNOP. After a brief hiatus, we resume our weekly feature in which we sift through the thousands of cover versions of Dylan songs and provide you with our favorites, as well as a quick memory of our first exposure to the original.]
If Steve Earle was going to cover a Dylan song from Highway 61 Revisited, one would guess it would be "Outlaw Blues." After all, the Texas singer-songwriter led a notorious life there for awhile, careening from bouts with substance abuse and serial marriage (eight times at the altar so far).
This take on Dylan's "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" is taken from 1996, when Earle was on the comeback trail after running off the tracks. in the preceding four years, Earle had been convicted of illegal drug and firearms possession, resulting in a stint in jail. But the incarceration allowed him to kick his habit.
Earle's rollicking performance of the song, with his crack backing band The Dukes, was recorded at Tennessee's Cold Creek Correctional Facility on 25 June 1996 as part of a court order. The concert was preserved on film (titled To Hell and Back) and shown in an edited form on MTV.
Here, "It Takes A Train" is given the up-tempo treatment, a powerful blues anchored by pile driving drummer Custer and the furious guitar of David Steele perfectly complimenting Earle's huffing harp and growling vocal, emphasizing the lonesome wail of the lyrics.
It's always been one of our top five Dylan songs and Earle does it great justice. The style is akin to the alternative take recorded during the Highway 61 sessions known as "Phantom Engineer" (with four lines of alternate lyrics) - which was revealed officially on The Bootleg Series: Vol. 1 -3.
The ultimate studio version would be a slower, lonesome blues, to be echoed famously six years later on stage at Madison Square Garden during Dylan's set at The Concert For Bangla Desh. The vocal is definitely nodding to the R&B style. Rhythmically, Dylan introduces the song with a lazy acoustic guitar riff, followed on its heels by Bobby Gregg's shuffling drums. But the star here are the keyboards of Paul Griffin: a two-beat boogie-woogie played on a tack piano (literally an altered ordinary piano in which tacks or nails are strategically placed on the hammers in order to come in contact with the strings, thereby creating a more tinny, distinctive sound).
The lyrics are few, for a Dylan composition, but the words create some stunning imagery. It is a notable achievement in Mr. Zimmerman's vast canon.
Original Listening: Bob Dylan, "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
Live Listening: Bob Dylan, George Harrison & Leon Russell, "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" (The Concert For Bangla Desh, 1971)
More Live Listening: Bob Dylan, "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" (The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1 -3 [Rare & Unreleased], 1961-1991)