Steve Earle Biography

Stephen Fain Earle, 17 January 1955, Fort Monroe, Virginia, USA. Earle’s father was an air-traffic controller and the family was raised in Schertz, near San Antonio, Texas. Earle played an acoustic guitar from the age of 11, but he also terrorized his school friends with a sawn-off shotgun. He left home many times and sang ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ and ‘all that shit’ in bars and coffee houses. He befriended Townes Van Zandt, whom he describes as a ‘a real bad role model’. Earle married at the age of 19 but when his wife went with her parents to Mexico, he moved to Nashville, playing for tips and deciding to stay. He took several jobs to pay his way but they often ended in arguments and violence. He appeared as a backing vocalist on Guy Clark’s 1975 classic Old No. 1, before signing a publishing contract with Sunbury Dunbar. Elvis Presley almost recorded ‘Mustang Wine’, and Johnny Lee had a Top 10 hit in 1982 with ‘When You Fall In Love’. His second marriage was based, he says, ‘on a mutual interest in drug abuse’.

Earle formed a back-up band in Texas, the Dukes, and was signed to Epic Records, who subsequently released the rockabilly influenced Early Tracks. Recognition came when he and the Dukes signed to MCA and made 1986’s famed ‘New Country’ album, Guitar Town, the term being the CB handle for Nashville. The title track, with its Duane Eddy -styled guitar riff, was a potent blend of country and rock ‘n’ roll. ‘Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)’ was Earle’s response to President Reagan’s firing of the striking air-traffic controllers, including Earle’s brother. Like Bruce Springsteen, his songs often told of the restlessness of blue-collar workers. ‘Someday’ is a cheerless example - ‘There ain’t a lot you can do in this town/You drive down to the lake and then you turn back around.’ Earle wrote ‘The Rain Came Down’ for the Farm Aid II benefit, and ‘Nothing But A Child’ was for an organization to provide for homeless children. Waylon Jennings recorded ‘The Devil’s Right Hand’ and Janie Fricke, ‘My Old Friend The Blues’. Although some of Earle’s compositions are often regarded as redneck anthems, the views are not necessarily his own: during this period he often wrote from the perspective of his creation, Bubba, the archetypal redneck. Another is The Beast: ‘It’s that unexplainable force that causes you to be depressed. As long as The Beast is there, I know I’ll always write.’

Earle saw in the 1988 New Year in a Dallas jail for punching a policeman and during that year, he married his fifth wife and released an album with a hard rock feel, Copperhead Road, which included the Vietnam saga ‘Johnny Come Lately’, which he recorded with the Pogues. The Hard Way and a live album followed, before Earle’s contract expired with MCA. His drug problems escalated and at one point the singer was living in crack houses or sleeping rough. Everything came to a grinding halt in 1994 when he was imprisoned for narcotics possession.

Following a successful detox program, Earle returned in 1995 with a fine album. Train A Comin’ was mellow, acoustic and emotional, and featured some exceptional playing from Peter Rowan and harmony vocals from Emmylou Harris. In the mid-90s, fired by the acclaim forTrain A Comin’, a cleaned-up Earle started his own label, E Squared, and contributed to the soundtrack of Dead Man Walking. Earle is determined never to return to drugs. He stated in January 1996, ‘I am real, real active and that is how I stay clean. It’s a matter of survival to me. My life’s pretty together right now. I got my family back.’

Earle continued his creative renaissance with I Feel Alright and El Corazón, and recorded a superb bluegrass album with the Del McCoury Band. His work during this period became increasingly political in nature, marking this former junkie out as a contemporary successor to one of his songwriting heroes, Woody Guthrie. Of particular note was the closing track on 2000’s Transcendental Blues, ‘Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song)’, a searing indictment of the death penalty in America. The track was sung from the point of view of Jonathan Nobles, a convicted double-murderer who invited Earle (a passionate opponent of the death penalty) to attend his execution.

Earle’s second studio album of the new millennium, Jerusalem, proved to be one of the best and most controversial recordings of his career. A complex exploration of the artist’s emotions following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the material cast a jaundiced eye over modern America’s ills with the only hint of redemption offered by the closing title track. The song which attracted most attention was ‘John Walker’s Blues’, an attempt to explore the story of the ‘American Taliban’ which triggered all sorts of opprobrium from America’s moral majority.

During this period, Earle also published the short stories collection, Doghouse Roses. The compilation set Sidetracks collected a number of his cover versions, including a particularly powerful version of Dylan’s ‘My Back Pages’. The 2003 release Just An American Boy: The Audio Documentary was Earle’s first official live release since 1991’s Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator. The following year’s The Revolution Starts... Now was a powerful recording that explicitly referenced the war in Iraq, and was released in the run up to the US presidential election. Earle’s outspoken opposition to the Republican incumbent George W. Bush earned him further catcalls from the traditionally right wing country press. Bush won the election, but Earle gained some payback when The Revolution Starts... Now won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Earle married his seventh wife, fellow singer Alison Moorer, on 11 August 2005. The couple worked together on one track from Earle’s next release, Washington Square Serenade. The album also included a cover version of the Tom Waits song ‘Way Down In The Hole’.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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