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Steve Earle

For many pundits, a roots rocker rather than a “Good Ol’ Boy” country artist (as one of his songs portrayed), STEVE EARLE has never conformed to the Nashville nascent, instead trading on post-SPRINGSTEEN-esque heartland rawk. While many remember the days when Steve and his Dukes reeled off classics such as `Copperhead Road’ and `I Ain’t Ever Satisfied’, the same fans more or less are moved by his topical, political folk.
Born 17th January 1955, Fort Monroe, Virginia, the son of an air traffic controller, EARLE was raised in Schertz, Texas, where his youth was spent immersed in guitar playing and rebelling against the authorities. At the age of 16, the long-haired would-be troubadour left home and eventually wound up in Houston where he befriended a coterie of songwriters that numbered the likes of TOWNES VAN ZANDT, JERRY JEFF WALKER and GUY CLARK. Subsequently relocating to Nashville, EARLE scraped by with a series of day jobs while playing in CLARK’s backing band at night. A burgeoning talent for songwriting and a growing network of music biz contacts eventually saw him land a job as staff writer for a Nashville publishing company, his songs placed with PATTY LOVELESS and even ELVIS PRESLEY.
Following a brief foray into acting (a bit part in Robert Altman’s Nashville movie), Steve set about bringing together a backing band, The Dukes, who survived numerous incarnations over the first decade of EARLE’s career. By this point (1980), he was already on his third wife, Carol, who temporarily helped put the brakes on his wilder instincts. EARLE took up a new job with publishers, Dea & Clark, issuing a debut EP, `Pink & Black’ on their small L.S.I. label in 1982. A Nashville music journalist, John Lomax, was quick to spot EARLE’s talent and offered his services as a manager before helping him net a deal with Epic Records.
Unfortunately, the major label bods were at odds with EARLE over his musical direction, rejecting an albums worth of songs (“Cadillac”) and demanding that he recut them in a more commercial style. A number of US-only tracks were eventually released in the space of a year or two, including `Nothin’ But You’, `Squeeze Me In’ (flipped with an early version of the scorching `Devil’s Right Hand’), Dennis Linde’s `What’ll You Do About Me?’ and `A Little Bit In Love’; the latter B-side featured his take of JOHN HIATT’s `The Crush’.
None were successful, however, and after a mutual split, EARLE moved on to M.C.A. with the help of producer Tony Brown. Finally, with the backing of a re-vamped Dukes (Bucky Baxter, Richard Bennett, Ken Moore, Harry Stinson, Emory Gordy Jr., John Jarvis, Steve Nathan and Paul Franklin), the self-styled Nashville renegade finally released a solo debut album, GUITAR TOWN (1986) {*8}. Walking the country line between threadbare folk, blues and rockabilly, the record found an audience with the “new country” brigade looking for the next DWIGHT YOAKAM, while commanding the respect of rock critics who praised his blue collar sentiments and gravel-throated troubadour approach; `Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left’, `Someday’ and the title track climbed the country charts.
Happy to co-bill The Dukes, EXIT O (1987) {*7}, continued in a similar, if slightly more countrified vein, featuring signature tune `I Ain’t Ever Satisfied’, alongside the track he penned for Farm Aid, `The Rain Came Down’.
Neither of these albums, however, hinted at the hard-bitten roots rock of COPPERHEAD ROAD {*8}, EARLE’s landmark 1988 effort that firmly established him within the mainstream rock community, while simultaneously alienating many of his core country fans. From the epic grit of the title track to the frenetic POGUES collaboration, `Johnny Come Lately’, Steve E never sounded so visceral. Neither had his lyrics been so vividly realised, bringing to life a motley cast of moonshiners, Vietnam vets and petty criminals. The record’s success made EARLE a popular live attraction in Europe especially, and he subsequently spent a large amount of time in London. His chaotic personal life was also catching up with him and besides coping with spiralling alcohol and drug dependency, he had to contend with an assault conviction (on a security guard at his own show) and the bankruptcy of Uni, the M.C.A. subsidiary that’d handled his album.
THE HARD WAY (1990) {*6} then, was his dark night of the soul, a downbeat, introspective record that ironically furnished him with his highest UK chart placing (Top 30); `The Other Kind’ was a minor AOR hit. Yet its relative commercial failure signalled the end of EARLE’s tenure with his label and, burned out after a punishing few years of touring, he finally disbanded The Dukes; they signed off with the Euro-only live in concert, SHUT UP AND DIE LIKE AN AVIATOR (1991) {*7}.
Things hardly improved for the beleaguered singer over the ensuing five years as he struggled with cocaine and heroin addiction, avoiding a one-year jail term by agreeing to enter a detox centre. Like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, EARLE released what many critics considered his most accomplished record to date in 1995 with TRAIN A COMIN’ {*8}. Issued via the Warner Bros.’ Nashville indie label, Winter Harvest (the rejuvenated Transatlantic in the UK), the album was an acoustic affair going back to EARLE’s country roots and utilising such talents as EMMYLOU HARRIS; four covers appeared in The BEATLES’ `I’m Looking Through You’, Norman Blake’s `Northern Winds’, the BONEY M hit `Rivers Of Babylon’ and TOWNES VAN ZANDT’s `Tecumseh Valley’.
Critically, commercially and creatively reborn, EARLE subsequently signed a new contract with Warner Bros, and released another winner in 1996’s I FEEL ALRIGHT {*8}. Introspective and confessional, the heartfelt pleas of the man comes through on `CCKMP’ (aka “Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain”), `Valentine’s Day’ and `Unrepentant’.
Older and wiser, EARLE had become one of the most respected elder statesmen in the country-roots field, going on to release the acclaimed EL CORAZON (1997) {*7} and record and tour with the DEL McCOURY BAND with whom he delivered a follow-up set, THE MOUNTAIN (1999) {*7}. While that was heavily steeped in bluegrass, the new millennium found EARLE taking a broader, but no less worldly-wise sweep, through the rugged country-rock which shaped his early career on the T-BONE BURNETT-produced, TRANSCENDENTAL BLUES (2000). As its title suggested, the singer was still seeking redemption through music, something that continued to lend his work a bruised authenticity missing in much modern country. That same year, EARLE was credited on an hootenanny single, `The Galway Girl’, by Sharon Shannon.
The live TOGETHER AT THE BLUEBIRD CAFÉ (2001) {*6} marked the belated release of a mid-90s benefit gig featuring EARLE and two of his musical/spiritual brethren, the aforementioned Texan singer-songwriters GUY CLARK and TOWNES VAN ZANDT. It was a tantalising bill which lent added poignancy given VAN ZANDT’s subsequent demise. The concert’s informal, back porch jam atmosphere only added to that feeling, with EARLE sounding as relaxed as he’s ever done.
2002’s JERUSALEM {*5} was a quite different beast, EARLE’s own personal meditation on the 9/11 tragedy and its aftermath and implications. Rather than trying to find blame, he sought explanations, even attempting to get inside the mind of the so-called “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh in `John Walker’s Blues’. Predictably, the singer came in from flack from America’s right-wing, with the political fallout spilling over into 2003’s excellent live documentary concert, JUST AN AMERICAN BOY (2003) {*7}.
As a snare-ushered `Copperhead Road’ serves to remind, EARLE has always been concerned with the USA’s underrepresented, or “white trash” shipped out at the first declaration of war. The non-election of Bush and attendant Iraq debacle just gave him a bit more impetus, as it did to nominally politically ambiguous figures like NEIL YOUNG. Opener `Amerika v. 6.0’, in fact, was conspicuously YOUNG-like in sound, structure and approach, both a self-administered kick up the jacksie for would-be liberals and a rant against the founding fathers’ “equal as long as we can pay” legacy. It’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer and sickle, but comes into its own in the heckler-blighted cauldron of EARLE and his Dukes live. Other highlights include anti-corporal punishment tract `Billy Austin’ (a cross between SPRINGSTEEN’s “Nebraska” and EDDIE VEDDER’s “Dead Man Walking”), an exhortatory cover of BRINSLEY SCHWARZ anthem, `(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding’, and a spartan, confidential closer from Steve’s son Justin Townes Earle.
Over the years EARLE has managed to cut a raft of covers, including `Dead Flowers’ + `Before They Make Me Run’ (The ROLLING STONES), `Blue Yodel #9’ (JIMMIE RODGERS), `What’s Your Name’ (LYNYRD SKYNYRD), `Johnny Too Bad’ (The Slickers), `Breed’ (NIRVANA), `Time Has Come Today’ (The CHAMBERS BROTHERS), `Creepy Jackalope Eye’ (SUPERSUCKERS), `Willin’’ (LITTLE FEAT), `My Uncle’ (The FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS), `My Back Pages’ (BOB DYLAN), `She’s About A Mover’ (DOUG SAHM).
Continuing his spate with Bush and his administration, THE REVOLUTION STARTS… NOW (2004) {*6}, the solo Steve and some Dukes, took the rocking DYLAN approach on such confrontational dirges, `Rich Man’s War’, `Condi, Condi’ (a lustful reggae paean to Condolleeza Rice) and the album’s soft-touch `I Thought You Should Know’.
On the back of another concert piece, LIVE AT MONTREUX 2005 (2006) {*6}, which captivated the man and band on an acoustic night in Switzerland, a fresh studio set for New West, WASHINGTON SQUARE SERENADE (2007) {*6} rekindled his country roots. Featuring his new young wifey, country singer Allison Moorer (on backing vox), EARLE steered away from confrontation into a more positive and passionate approach.
As always commanding chart-wise sales for his solo albums in both America and Britain, the inevitable homage to his old mucker, TOWNES (2009) {*7} was rewarded with a Grammy nomination. Fifteen songs from `Panchy And Lefty’ to `To Live Is To Fly’, EARLE shows the listener he’d not forgotten his country roots. His son Justin was on board, as was RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE exile TOM MORELLO.
To coincide with a novel of the same name, I’LL NEVER GET OUT OF THIS WORLD ALIVE (2011) {*6}; also a song the property of the great HANK WILLIAMS, Steve and his merry band, including Sara Watkins on fiddle, Jackson Smith (Patti’s son) on guitar, Jay Bellerose on percussion, and Greg Leisz on pedal steel, EARLE again drawls out political folk. A song written for JOAN BAEZ on her “The Day After Tomorrow” set a few years prior, `God Is God’ is a genuine song for the disaffected and disillusioned, while the raspy `Every Part Of Me’ is almost WAITS-like. Allison Moorer is again on hand to provide delicious backing vocals, while the Grammy-nominated `This City’ stems from Steve’s starring part in HBO series, Treme.
2013’s THE LOW HIGHWAY {*7} again positioned himself (and The Dukes (& Duchesses)) in the Top 40. Co-produced by band stalwart, Ray Kennedy, Steve goes from rocker to country troubadour at will. The prime cuts stem from the title track and `Calico Country’ to `Burnin’ It Down’ plus two songs penned with Lucia Micarelli: `Love’s Gonna Blow My Way’ and `After Mardi Gras’; Moorer, Looney and violinist Eleanor Whitmore are the Duchesses.
Who better to relay the blues than 7-times married STEVE EARLE; The DUKES (and the uncredited Duchesses) now minus divorcee Allison Moorer prior to blues-folk set TERRAPLANE (2015) {*7}. Kicking back the years, his muddy boots and all his troubles like some modern-day GEORGE THOROGOOD, SPRINGSTEEN or JOHNNY WINTER (he dedicated the set to the latter), the transatlantic Top 40 album exorcised his “happy” demons in one therapeutic swoop; best bets `Better Off Alone’, `The Tennessee Kid’ (very “Highway 61”), `Go Go Boots Are Back’ and, with Eleanor Whitmore on dual vocals, `Baby’s Just As Mean As Me’.
Subsequently teaming up fellow contemporary country-folk star SHAWN COLVIN, the 60-something Steve helped co-pen several cuts on their collaborative `Colvin & Earle’ set in June 2016.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS/BG // rev-up MCS Apr2013-Jun2016

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