Even amidst so many albums that we love, there are a few in each person’s life that save us, soothe us, heal us, and hold us again and again for decades. Their timelessness is found mainly in the songwriting with a story-telling so deep and true that not even years can diminish the potency.
Now 30 years old, Shawn Colvin’s Steady On has weathered the decades beautifully because the songs are just SO GOOD. Like, ridiculously brilliant. Not just to fans or critics, but to peers and poets of various generations, as well.
Having made a big entrance with Indigo Girls in the same year as Steady On‘s release, Emily Saliers remembers hearing what would go on to become a desert island disc for her. “The entire album hit me by surprise so hard with Shawn’s melodies, stories, toughness, and ache,” she recalls. “I became obsessed with it, not having been floored by an album like that since a release by Heart or Joni Mitchell. I listened to it every day, and at night, for the longest time. I couldn’t believe I found an artist and an album like this one.”
Singer/songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews wasn’t yet born when the “masterpiece of an album” that is Steady On was released on October 17, 1989. Still, she found her way to it, as well, and it changed her and her work. As with many, her first entry into the heart and soul of Colvin was “Shotgun Down the Avalanche,” a song like nothing so many of us had ever heard before.
“When I first heard ‘Shotgun Down the Avalanche,’ I stopped everything I was doing, and sought out more of Shawn’s work,” Andrews says. “She’s able to resonate so poignantly and deeply with the literature in these songs.”
On the original recording, John Leventhal’s expansively intimate production provides layers of textures and rhythms reflecting the pulses of Colvin’s restrained and resplendent lyrical phrasing. With the new, acoustic rendering, Colvin has only her incredibly expressive guitar backing her utterly emotive voice and it works just fine because, once again, these songs can stand on their own. Still, as a guitarist, Colvin easily ambles between beefy chugs and tender rolls, depending on what her words and melodies need for support.
“Shawn has a way of seamlessly weaving metaphors with gut-wrenching truths in her work,” Andrews notes. “Steady On is an album of security blankets that always remind me that, I may be alone, but I am never alone in my aloneness.”
Indeed, there is so much comfort to be found here, whether in the romantic wreckage “Shotgun Down the Avalanche” and “The Dead of the Night,” the emotional isolation of “Stranded” and “Something to Believe In,” or the forward motion of “Diamond in the Rough” and “The Story.”
The album’s title track is replete with both a great guitar groove (written by Leventhal) and a slew of sly metaphors. (How can you not love singing along to “It’s like 10 miles of two lane on a South Dakota wheat plain”?!) Colvin wrote the tune while sitting on a beach in South Carolina, hence the broken china and ocean boats, while on a short vacation between shows. It opens the set in stunning fashion and is one of the few non-heartbreakers in the cycle, so it both betrays and belies what is to follow.
No matter which Steady On you spin, Saliers sums it up: “To this day, listening to the songs on Steady On is like a trip to bountiful. Shawn Colvin is a badass and a national treasure.”