Published Jan 01, 2006"Um, Steve would probably prefer not to talk about the drug stuff. He's done so many other things since then." As a pre-interview publicist request, this isn't surprising, nor unreasonable. After all, it's easy to view Steve Earle's career as a modern blueprint for long-held artistic myths of sin and salvation. Hooked on heroin from the age of 13, Earle spent his teens hitchhiking around his native Texas fantasising about being Woody Guthrie. When he landed in Nashville, he was lumped in with new country, when in reality, he is a forefather today's alt-country scene. By the late 1980s, Earle's self-abuse was overshadowing his brilliant gifts as a songwriter, and landed him in prison. Today, his daily ritual includes composing a haiku and tending bonsai trees. Earle considers himself a writer first and foremost, and in that respect his life shouldn't be viewed any differently than any other great self-destructive American literary figure. Earle's new album, Transcendental Blues is another step forward, and proof that, for some, cleanliness is next to godliness. "I don't buy the suffering for art' thing," he says. "I wake up in the morning and I'm healthier and happier than I've ever been. For one thing, I don't have to waste half a day finding $500 worth of dope. That helps a lot."
Seventeen-year-old Steve Earle hitchhikes from his hometown of San Antonio to Houston to see Gram Parsons & the Fallen Angels. He's taken with Gram's backing vocalist Emmylou Harris, and sets his mind on combining country and rock in a similar fashion. Abandons playing in glam-rock cover bands and starts infiltrating the Texas coffee house circuit. Soon after, falls under the sway of legendary non-conformist troubadour Townes Van Zandt, and enters into the first of five marriages.
Leaves wife for Nashville with first batch of songs and hooks up with Van Zandt's close friend Guy Clark. Plays bass in Clark's band (heard on Clark's Old No. One) while waiting to sign a publishing deal. Lands in a crowd scene during Robert Altman's film Nashville, and comes close to having Elvis record his song "Mustang Wine." The King didn't turn up for the session. Earle spends the next several years finding his footing in Music City, which alternately deems him too country or too rock.
"The best way to understand that whole West Texas thing that I came up in, is to meet Terry Allen, because Terry was the mentor to Townes and all those guys. He's the reason they're so good and also the reason they're so fucked up. Terry's main thing is being a sculptor, which is where most of his money comes from, but he also writes songs and screenplays. One day I started telling him about this play I'm writing and he says, Don't you do any visual arts, man?' He thinks everybody should do everything, and I really admire that."
After an unsuccessful deal with Epic that produces only a handful of singles, Earle begins writing at a furious pace to support his then-pregnant third wife. His first hit comes with Johnny Lee's version of "When You Fall In Love," which leads to Waylon Jennings, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill and Jason & the Scorchers picking through his catalogue. Around this time Emmylou Harris sees him at Nashville's Bluebird Cafe and is mesmerised. She will go on to cover several of Earle's songs and become a frequent collaborator.
Signs to MCA through Elvis's former piano player, Tony Brown, now company president. Records Guitar Town and immediately gets lumped into a "new country" movement along with Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. His debut remains a landmark of the era; the timeless title track, "Someday" and others echo the Nashville that once was. Hits the road with rough-edged backing from the Dukes, who immediately peel any Nashville sheen from the music.
Exit 0 fuels debates over Earle's country-rock leanings as he starts drawing comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. Most fans simply hear memorable songs, from "I Ain't Ever Satisfied" to "Nowhere Road." But with record sales not even approaching his contemporaries, MCA decides to sell him as a rocker with his next album.
"When you're talking in terms of pop music, you can confine somebody to a pretty small period of time, sometimes just a single. I happened to luckily survive for a while, because I think really good songwriting doesn't get locked into a time. I think the reason I still have a job is that I keep writing halfway decent songs."
Things accelerate greatly upon release of Copperhead Road. Even though the album isn't a dramatic departure, emphasis on Earle's harder edge wins over a large mainstream rock audience. The title track becomes a justified hit, followed up by possibly his most perfect song, the anti-gun "Devil's Right Hand," as well as a novel collaboration with the Pogues, "Johnny Come Lately," which foreshadows Earle's love affair with Ireland. Surprisingly, the album sells even better in Canada than in the U.S., cementing Earle's ties with this country. Profits were now going to feed Earle's drug habit, which was quickly overtaking him.
The Hard Way stops the momentum of Copperhead Road dead in its tracks, mostly because its songs reflect the darkness and confusion in Earle's life. The first single, "The Other Kind," comes off as self-parody, but the album is partially redeemed by "Billy Austin," Earle's first stand against capital punishment.
"I still play those songs, but I am a different guy than I was then. If I wasn't a different guy, I'd be dead. I do see those albums as being made by a different guy to a certain extent, but I'm not ashamed of the work. I'm ashamed of pretty much everything else I did, but not the work."
1991 to 1994
A largely ignored live album, Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator, recorded in Kitchener and London, ON, marks the end of his MCA contract. Earle descends into a drug-induced hell that revolves around Nashville's crack neighbourhoods. After pawning most of his possessions, as well as most of his sister Stacey's, he takes a job guarding a crack house in exchange for drugs. Even though new deals are being offered, Earle turns them all down, saying he has no new songs to record. With arrests piling up over the next three years, in 1994 Earle is finally sentenced to one year in prison. After three weeks, he is forced into rehab, where he ultimately bottoms out.
"I probably bought into the whole outlaw image a little bit. Some of it was just me having a drug habit, but I would have been an addict if I had been a carpenter ? I exposed myself to it and I succumbed. But at the time I knew I was dying and I couldn't figure out why it was taking so long. I was resigned to it, until one day I decided I wanted to live; the music I've made ever since has reflected that."
After being released from jail in the spring, Earle eases back into recording with Train A-Comin', an acoustic hodgepodge of old originals and unexpected covers ("Rivers Of Babylon"). Expectations are raised even higher when "Ellis Unit One" appears on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. Earle's first post-rehab original, the song is a graceful and haunting triumph. He forms his own label, E Squared, with producer Ray Kennedy and seems poised to make a full-fledged comeback in an era when a new generation now views him as an icon.
"When I heard Jay Farrar's stuff with Uncle Tupelo and then Son Volt, I knew it was something special. What he has ? that I think some of the people in the alternative country movement lack ? is genuine lonesomeness, and if it's got anything to do with country, it needs that. Ryan Adams of Whiskeytown is a really good writer and probably the best singer to come out of that bunch, and then there are guys closer to my age who I didn't know about, like Joe Henry and Richard Buckner, who I think are great. The most inspiring thing about all that stuff is that it's totally song-driven."
I Feel Alright is indeed the comeback fans have hoped for, where he conquers his demons in an unsentimental way on songs like "Hard Core Troubadour," "The Unrepentent," and "Hurtin' Me Hurtin' You." Even though he never let the drugs destroy his art in the past, without them he discovers he's even better. Backing from the Dukes is the best yet, and shows Earle veering off into pop territory at times. As part of his rehab, Earle plays several prison shows with predictably rousing results. Also produces a version of Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels On A Gravel Road; she ultimately scraps everything but the basic bed tracks.
Continues to expand his palette with El Corazon, which sees him taking sounds to more extremes: does a good Crazy Horse imitation on "Taneytown"; teams up with Sub Pop stalwarts the Supersuckers on "NYC"; and tries straight bluegrass with "I Still Carry You Around." Begins writing fiction and poetry in earnest, while signing and producing young bands like the V-Roys.
"At this point I've realised I'm a songwriter and I write all different kinds of stuff, and I ferociously defend my right to be expansive. One of the things I never understood was why people get uncomfortable when somebody wants to work in more than one area. To me, it makes sense to serve the songs rather than to serve anybody's preconceived idea of what Steve Earle sounds like."
After working with the Del McCoury Band on one El Corazon track, Earle takes them along for the leap into a full-blown Bill Monroe-inspired bluegrass album, The Mountain. Both recording and touring prove to be a struggle, as Earle adapts to the band's virtuosity. While in Europe, Del McCoury reportedly gets fed up with Earle's language and attitude, prompting Earle's response: "There's no room in vulgarity for bluegrass." Continues to write feverishly, finishing off a short story collection during a two-month stay in Ireland.
"The whole experience of doing The Mountain was the most I've ever learned, and probably the most I ever will learn. It's hard music, but I got to make a record and tour with the best bluegrass band in the world, and I'll probably do it again."
Releases Transcendental Blues, which carries on the genre-hopping of El Corazon. This time Earle seems even more playful, duetting with his sister on "When I Fall," unabashedly writing another Irish reel ("The Galway Girl") and bluegrass ramble ("Until The Day I Die"), while giving the rockers a decidedly Brit-pop feel.
"The Beatles influence has always been around in everything we've done here, but it's a little more blatant on this one. I don't think anybody's made any records that sound better than those. I got out a copy of Revolver and it sat on the console for the whole record."
There's also another lament for a condemned man, "Over Yonder," written for Jonathan Nobles, whose execution Earle witnessed. As someone who significantly changed his life around, Earle felt Nobles had done the same.
"I saw a horrific thing, and I needed to come away with something positive out of it, so it was one of those songs that you write because you need to. But I'm tired of writing songs like that. I really hope I don't have to, but I also think the death penalty in the States is going to go away on its own."
Taking such a stand says a lot about how far Steve Earle has truly come. Where once his art was merely a vehicle to feed his demons, it now feeds his soul, and as he has finally come to realise, the souls of his audience.