'The Definitive Collection 1986 - 1992'
Steve Earle Biography
Steve Earle's career has been one of the most extraordinary in American music. He crashed into country music with his 1986 classic rockin' country album GUITAR TOWN, then spun through a drug-fuelled downward spiral which earned him a prison term in the early 1990s. He emerged a stronger man, vocal advocate of free speech persuasively arguing against the death penalty, and a more mature musician who had some real stories to tell. Having dabbled in rockabilly, bluegrass and punk rock, not to mention drugs and alcohol abuse, the Texas outlaw singer-songwriter became something of a political activist.
Earle's life and musical career with all its ups-and-downs, controversy and headline-grabbing antics, is the stuff of legends, particularly to his die-hard fans. He came out of nowheresville Schertz, Texas the son of an air traffic controller. He dropped out of 8th grade to go on the road, and lie on ratty Austin couches with his Texas troubadour heroes. Eventually he landed in Nashville where, for a time he was referred to as the saviour of country music, the thinking man's antidote to a thousand guys in ersatz cowboy hats, the hillbilly Bruce Springsteen, the next Hank Williams.
Being something of an unpredictable artist and refusing to play Nashville's Music Row political game, Steve has remained well outside of the country music's strict boundaries. Over the years his audience has grown substantially in the alt.country and Americana scene without help from country radio, and apart from a pair of top 10 singles in 1986 and 1987 (Guitar Town and Goodbyes All We've Got Left), he has been ignored by the country mainstream.
He was born on January 17, 1955 in Fort Monroe, Virginia, but grew up near San Antonio, Texas. By the time he was eleven-years-old he had mastered guitar, and was also something of a wild tearaway. When he was fourteen, he ran away from home to make music, working bars and coffeehouses in Austin, Dallas and Houston throughout his teens. He came under the influence of such Texas songwriters as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, and in 1974 followed them to Nashville. Almost immediately he landed work as an 'extra' in the Robert Altman film Nashville. For the next few years he performed in local Nashville bars, often linking up to perform alongside Clark, Van Zandt and Rodney Crowell. He played bass on Clark's OLD No. 1 album and landed a publishing deal. Elvis Presley was due to record one of Steve's songs, but he never showed up at the session, so it never happened. He moved back to San Antonio, where he picked up with a couple of local musicians, and hit the road as Steve Earle And The Dukes.
A move back to Nashville in 1981 led to him being signed as a songwriter by Pat Carter and Roy Dea and being left to run their publishing company. Carl Perkins recorded his Mustang Wine, Zella Lehr included a couple more of his songs on an album, and then Johnny Lee took When You Fall In Love into the country top 20 in 1982. Utilising the money from his writing, he recorded a four-song EP, PINK AND BLACK, with his two-piece back-up band, which perfectly captured the excitement of 1950s rockabilly with a definite 1980s edge. The EP reached Epic Records, who signed Earle and released one of the tracks, Nothin' But You in early 1983. It made a brief appearance on the country charts and Earle entered the studio to cut an album of neo-rockabilly songs that was never released until much later. Other country singers including Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Janie Fricke started recording his songs.
A move to MCA Records at the beginning of 1986 resulted in the GUITAR TOWN album, acclaimed as one of the most exciting records by a new Nashville-based artist in years. A legitimately great record, the album was a latter day 'Grapes of Wrath' for the pick-up truck set, it still remains a most eloquent expression of lefty redneck/populist complaint. GUITAR TOWN made both the country and rock charts, eventually becoming his only country chart-topper and proving to be his most influential collection. The title song became a top ten country hit.
He followed with the almost-as-good EXIT-O, the following year. His revival of Dave Dudley's Six Days On The Road, was featured in the film Planes, Trains and Automobiles. At this time his style was fast, rocking-country, guitar-dominated and laden with heavy southern rock drumming. He became a major star in Europe, but the COPPERHEAD ROAD album failed to connect with mainstream country radio in America, as the dynamic, anthem-fuelled title only just scraped into the country top 50 in 1988. The Devil's Right Hand, recorded initially by Waylon Jennings, accurately presaged Earle's future drug addiction and incarceration. It is a powerful song and is one of three often overlooked tracks from the superb COPPERHEAD ROAD album. Another one, Johnny Come Lately, was recorded in London with Irish band the Pogues. That same year, Epic released the previously aborted 1983 album as THE EARLY TRACKS.
A somewhat erratic artist and hard-headed person, Steve Earle had a reputation for being difficult to work with. Though his career was taking off, his personal life was becoming a wreck. In a three-year period he had divorced his third wife, married a fourth, who he quickly divorced, then married and divorced a fifth, before he married a sixth wife, Teresa Ensenat, who worked for MCA. He was also delving deeper and deeper into drug and alcohol abuse. Struggling to become a country Bruce Springsteen, he never fully recaptured the freshness and excitement of his first two albums.
1990's THE HARD WAY is probably Earle's most underrated album. Because it was the last studio album he made for MCA it never received the promotion it deserved both here and in the US. Any album that contains such gems as the compelling tale of Billy Austin, the rockin' road song This Highway's Mine and the rollicking Country Girl is well worth having. Following the album's commercial failure, MCA refused to release a new studio album, opting instead for a live album, SHUT UP AND DIE LIKE AN AVIATOR, and then decided not to renew his contract.
Earle never fitted into the Nashville image-making machinery, being something of a rebel with his long, often unkempt hair. All too often stories of his wild living have detracted from his musical talents. In the mid-1990s his drug addiction had become publicly known. He became something of an erratic performer, often turning up late for gigs, sometimes doing a no-show. If he did finally walk out on stage, he often looked wan and weary, and would fumble through the first few songs, knock over his drink that had been placed on a barstool onstage. But like a stubborn soul from one of his songs, he would rebound with a trance-like series of songs from his early albums, songs that helped revitalise country music and pave the way for today's Americana scene.
In 1996 Steve had reached an all-time low in his life and career when he went to jail on a drug bust. "I was a heroin addict when I made Guitar Town and everybody knew it," he explained a few years ago. "It's just that nobody cared as long as it was a cool place to be around. And then like all addictions, it got to where it wasn't a cool place to be around and everybody bailed out."
Since then, a drug-free Steve Earle has been making up for lost time. He started a record company, E-Squared with partner Jack Emerson. Has released a series of critically-acclaimed, yet musically diverse, albums, and produced many others. He has taught songwriting, done some film and TV acting, written a book and also a script for the Nashville theatre company he started. And has also been involved in political causes, including the Landmine Free World awareness campaign.
One of the most outspoken modern singer-songwriters, Steve stepped out with customary courage and controversy with John Walker's Blues, a provocative song on 2002's JERUSALEM. In it, Earle tries to explain from an understanding perspective how young John Walker Lindh could become the so-called 'American Taliban' ('I'm just an American boy, raised on MTV..')
Maintaining a busy schedule has been Steve's way of building a new life for himself and his music. He appeared as a recovering addict in the HBO drama series, The Wire, tours incessantly either as a solo act, troubadour style with his trusty guitar, or with his band the Dukes. When not out on the road he lives in a large basement apartment in the quiet, tree-lined streets of the West Village neighbourhood of New York City with his wife, the gorgeous redheaded singer-songwriter Allison Moorer-the seventh Mrs Earle. Prior to the move to the Big Apple, Steve had called middle Tennessee his home for close on thirty years. Allison and Steve were married at Nashville's Hermitage Hotel on August 12, 2005, before going back out on the road together. He revels in walking the same Greenwich Village streets that Bob Dylan did and living in a neighbourhood where the local deli is a United Nations worth of languages. He'll never lose his Texas twang, but he's a New Yorker now.
He happily calls himself a 'commie hillbilly.' This diverse set of recordings, culled from his six-year stint with MCA from 1986-1992 sees him move effortlessly from rockin' country through hard rock, bluegrass, hillbilly-rock and Irish music in such a cohesive manner that the blurring of musical boundaries takes a while to become crystal clear. His credibility carries over in his stories, with echoes of territory covered in his songs-love and war, the road, and the criminal kind-very much in evidence. Buried deep in this collection are the seeds of hope for a better country music scene and songwriting that stands tall and proud with the best of Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Hank Williams, Guy Clark and Johnny Cash.
Alan Cackett (editor of Maverick)