“This is an artist you must listen to…Steve pulls no punches and gives me much hope…If I were a rock star, I would be Steve Earle.”—Michael Moore
It can be kind of defeating, trying to write a standard music industry bio of Steve Earle. For someone not yet 50 (not until January of 2005), Steve has managed to amass quite a bunch of bio. Also problematic for the bio writer is the fact that the many details of Steve’s hectic existence can not simply be set down in any semblance of reductionist order. You know: the usual Behind the Music melodramatic list of boxes to be checked: born, grew up semi deprived/disaffected, got break, made records, piled up money for his handlers, went to pieces, came back, found God/humility, etc. etc. This isn’t to say that Steve Earle hasn’t touched those bases at least once or twice, or that his tumultuous life and times are not chock full of drama, melo and not. But good luck trying to crush his highly particular world into a row of checked boxes
For those who don’t know, Steve Earle has been, for the past two decades, one of the more compellingly engaged figures on the American cultural landscape. Steve is the author of best-selling works of fiction (“Doghouse Roses”), a playwright, and a well-known speaker and presence in a variety of left-leaning populist movements. But it is in his persona as an exceedingly thoughtful, yet fun, country rocker that most people know him, and rightly so. His contribution to the merging of progressive country to the wider rock audience remains huge. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that the entire genre of “alt. Country” would not exist without Earle’s ground-breaking extension of what used to be called “folk-rock.” His recorded work, from the classic 1986 Guitartown onward through such excitingly heartfelt/redemptive works as Copperhead Road, I Feel Alright, El Corazon, Transcendental Blues, to the current The Revolution Starts…Now, represents an extraordinary catalogue of deeply personal music which compares favorably with such esteemed heroes as Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, or even Bob Dylan.
Few artists have been able and/or willing to put themselves so consistently on the line, or to forthrightly speak their minds as Earle has, while continuing to maintain a commercial presence. On the heels of the controversial Jerusalem, which featured the much discussed “John Walker Blues,” a song which confounded Fox Newsies and other Patriot Actors by daring to actually imagine the so-called “American Taliban” as a human being, The Revolution Starts…Now, which features such no punch-pulling tunes as “F the CC” (an ode to the Federal Communications Commission) and “Rich Man’s War” might just turn out to be Earle’s most popular work. This could be due to the kinky inclusion of numbers like “Condi, Condi”, the singer’s tribute to what he calls “the extraterrestrial hotness” of the current Star Trek-ish National Security Advisor.
“I’ve been waiting all my life to sing a line like ‘skank for me, Condi’” says Earle, which more or less sums up his approach to the surreal quality of today’s political landscape.
Then again, much of Steve Earle’s sojourn through the vicissitudes of these millennial times has had the smack of the alt.—-country and otherwise —-about it. As rock narratives go, Steve’s journey from wiseass garage player to wiseass (but wise) national figure is difficult to match. The back story, with its James Deanish archetypical aspect, is well-known to fans. Steve is from Texas, of course, where he was brought up in the don’t-blink town of Schertz, outside of San Antonio. It wasn’t the easiest childhood, most of all for Steve’s parents, the charming, more than occasionally exasperated Jack and Barbara Earle. Much of this upset owed to the fact that Steve, the oldest of five, was a poster child for the sort of individual who nowadays gets diagnosed ADHD (with a heavy accent on the hyper) and given mountains of Ritalin. Back in the 1960’s however, people like Steve were just called noncompliant badasses. School, as Steve says, “didn’t take.” Bored in English class, less than clueless in math, he was out of there by 8th grade. Much of his time then was spent in the local candy store playing pinball, a daily preoccupation until an iconic moment when, on the verge of an extra silver ball, the future songwriter saw his father’s reflection looming in the machine glass.
“If you’re not going to school, you better be helping around home,” said Jack Earle, a large, forceful man who spent several decades as an air traffic controller. He tried, Steve said, but with a head full of ideas driving him insane and a still-extant weakness for the romance of the road, at age 14 he found himself in Houston, living with his cousin, the knock-around musician, Nick Fain. Already a proficient guitarist (his Mom says one of her fondest early memories was of Steve winning a talent contest before he got thrown out of school), he taught himself the bass. He also began what would become an epic career as an ingester of illicit drugs. Richard Pryor said he once snorted half of Peru. Steve Earle would eventually perform similar feats in East Texas and Tennessee, albeit with poppies and needles. It was a lucky thing that, in addition to playing his guitar, he had a natural talent for crushing vast, soul-searching narratives into four or five verses with catchy bridging choruses.
Always looking for grown-ups (using this term loosely) who could teach him something he actually wanted to know, Steve joined up with many of the Texas troubadour legends of the time, people like Guy Clark (for whom he played bass), Jerry Jeff Walker, and the inimitable Townes Van Zandt. Most influential would be the dissolute Van Zandt, a world-class songwriter and self-destructive force, whom Earle calls——in one of his most quoted one-liners—- “a really good teacher and really bad role model.” The two men bonded in a hell-bent symbiosis of art and madness. One time, in an attempt to cure his drinking, Van Zandt had himself tied to a tree by the younger Earle. The truly demented thing was they both imagined this as a potentially effective treatment regimen. (It wasn’t: Van Zandt would wind up drinking himself to death). Never one to stint in the pursuit of anything, Steve, in addition to his drug use, would start marrying women in record fashion. In the words of one of his greatest songs, “Fearless Heart” he “fell in love a lot”. By the time he hit 40, he’d already been married an impressive six times, to five different women (Lou Anne Gill twice), which added up to two children and a hell of a lot of alimony.
In the midst of this cosmic thrashing, Steve Earle found the time to write hundreds of tunes, many in the employ of various Nashville song-writing combines. After a false start as a would-be rockabilly cat, he found his true groove after hooking up with Tony Brown and MCA to release Guitartown in 1986. Achingly honest in its multi-faceted mini-sagas of battered, betrayed rednecks, Guitartown, which contains the all-time fave title tune along with other enduring gems like “Hillbilly Highway”, “Someday” and “Goodbye’s All We Got Left”, sold like gangbusters, reaching number 1 on the country charts. To anyone’s way of reckoning, a new star was born. But Steve, oppositional in his way, did not quite view stardom in the same way as most of his ardent Nashville corporate enablers. From the beginning it was clear he would not be Garth Brooks, or even Bruce Springsteen, the blue-collar champion he is most often compared with.
He would not wear a cowboy hat. He would not appear on the cover of his Guitartown follow-up, Exit 0, without his band, the Dukes. Eventually the disc, which includes such all-time Steve tunes as “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied” and “The Rain Came Down”, came out without any cover picture, which in Nashville is akin to repeal of the Magna Carta. By the time of Copperhead Road, a hard-rocking masterwork that features one of Steve’s numerous tattoos for cover art, it was obvious: this boy was not made for country music, at least the kind of country music which rolled off the rack in Nashville. He was a junkie and a pain in the ass. He talked back and burned bridges. He forgot to show up for Fan Fair. He got into fights with the police, in Dallas no less. His days were numbered.
After the release of the brutally underrated The Hard Way, Steve Earle entered his own kind of personal Hades. Fired by MCA, he pawned most of guitars and moved to South Nashville, the black side of town, where he would spend the most of the next four years living the life of a street hustling drug addict, albeit one with some serious royalty checks still pouring in. Hanging with some local losers, playing Dr. Dre’s The Chronic over and over again, Steve Earle became one more of country music’s casualties. Every so often there would be Bigfoot-like sightings of him in the industry rags, usually looking gaunt and sneering. People wrung their hands about what a waste it all was, since Steve could have been such a massive star. Eventually, after a number of literally hair-raising car crashes and near death experiences with nasty drug providers, Steve got himself fitted for a bright orange jumpsuit in the County Jail where he’d stay for four months.
To say Earle was “a different man” when he got out of prison is stretching it some. According to almost everyone who knows him well, he was the same person: still a guy who rarely shut up (Steve himself says, “I’ll talk the ears off a wooden Indian”), still a guy with a head full of ideas. Kelley Looney, the bass player who has been a Duke longer than anyone says, “with Steve, things are always changing, but you kind of get used to that.” There were differences though. Mostly, Earle was straight, off junk and in a program, going to meetings nearly every day. Secondly, he was ready to play again.
For his second act, Steve went on a hot streak rarely equaled in American pop music. There was Train A-Comin’, a classy, quietly smoldering all-acoustic album of many of his older songs. This was followed by the searing rockers, I Feel Fine and El Corazon, two albums which, to these ears at least, represent some of his truly best stuff, song-by-song. There was still a country feel, but the canvas had widened, deepened. Rarely had his voice sounded better. It had a lived-in quality akin to the blues, or even the great Hank.
The material was shifting too. Few hit records provided more canny social commentary than Guitartown, but now Steve, who points to his air traffic controller father’s firing by Ronald Reagan as a major step in his own radicalization, was more overtly political. For Steve it didn’t make sense to march against the death penalty without singing about it as well. In this he was picking up the mantle of many passed-on heroes, like Woody Guthrie. The occasional protest tune on records like Transcendental Blues have become whole scale political disks like Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts…Now.
There are some who might wish Steve keep his rabble-rousing music to himself and simply turn out entire albums of tunes like “Fearless Heart.” Steve is sympathetic to this point of view. But for now he feels little choice. As an American patriot, what was someone with a songwriting gift like his to do in the age of Bush? “We’re in trouble, it isn’t anything you want to just sit by and pretend isn’t happening,” says the artist about his response to the current American place in the world.
It isn’t anything you really want to argue with either. Because first of all, Steve Earle has been around. He has done his requisite hard traveling for his position as a cultural bard. He is no dilettante in what he loosely calls “The Revolution”. Indeed, he is a renaissance man of the Revolution, a process which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with AK-47s in the street or little red books written by Mao. The Revolution is a way to think, a way to live. Being up front in that number takes a little ego, that’s for sure. But it takes learning too
- life learning and book learning. Mostly, though it takes heart. Heart is something Steve Earle, who still “falls in love a lot”, has plenty of.