Steve Earle

Los Angeles Times Magazine
Cover Story
Sunday September 23, 2001
* Pop. Country. Bluegrass. Songwriter Steve Earle Knows His Eclecticism Confuses the Marketplace, But He Is Unwilling, Maybe Unable, to Restrict Himself.
By Terry McDermott, Times Staff WriterThe House of Blues crowd, notorious for inattention, is tuned in tonight. Even the industry suits at the back bar have their cells set to vibrate.
Two hours into a raucous set of transatlantic rock-‘n’-roll–a sound whose touchstone lies somewhere between Nashville and Liverpool–the applause lifts as the song crashes to a close, then falls. The lights dim as Steve Earle retreats to the rear of the stage to change guitars. His band, The Dukes, is lost in the darkness, and a single spot makes a bright, white, empty cone at the front of the stage. For the first time all night, the house grows quiet as Earle steps alone into the light.
The man who seemed almost a child when he broke onto the national music scene 15 years ago is anything but that now. Earle is 46. His last hit record was in 1988. Even then, people didn’t know quite what to do with him. And now? Whew! What do you do with a hillbilly-Mersey-beat-power-chord singer-songwriter, a recovering crack and heroin addict with more ex-wives than some people have teeth, and almost as many ex-record companies as wives?
He’s got some miles on him, hard ones, too. The hair on top of his head is rapidly becoming a historical artifact. His dark eyes seem to be retreating, too, deeper under the darker brows behind the steel-rimmed glasses. With a big brown beard and white-trash, trailer-park Texas drawl, he could be–and has been–the guy in the next cell. The boy has grown into a bulky, outsized man who doesn’t quite fit the body he’s been given. Or, for that matter, the town where he lives, Nashville, or the boundaries of the art in which he works. Steve Earle is busting out all over. Not uncontrollable, but definitely uncontainable.
In the past six years, Earle has recorded five albums, any one of which would be cause for celebration. Taken together, they place Earle as our foremost musical guide to the damage we do to ourselves. In the same six years, he has started a record company, co-produced 10 albums for other artists and written a book of short stories, most of a three-act play, part of a novel, 366 haikus, and songs for Sheryl Crowe, Meat Loaf and a handful of movies. He’s started a second (or is it third?) career as a political activist. He’s also taken up fly-fishing and bonsai trees, tame substitutes, perhaps, for the Harleys and heroin of his past, but easier on the central nervous system.
Atlantic Monthly magazine calls Earle the “ferocious dean” of roots music, citing his “insidious charisma” and “irredeemably anguished” songs. The novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje created a character who could be comforted only by Earle’s songs of “furious loss.” A movie called the “Wild West” featured two would-be Pakistani country and western singers obsessed with Earle. Rolling Stone calls him “a homespun visionary . . . one of the finest songwriters working in any genre.”
So, about now, I’d guess, you’re probably wondering why you’ve never heard of this guy. Or, if you have, you’re trying to remember exactly what it was you heard. Isn’t he, uh, dead? Earle was greeted within country music as the reincarnation of Hank Williams upon the arrival of his 1986 album “Guitar Town.” What happened after that followed Williams’ sad trajectory more in the matter of substance abuse than hit records. That Earle didn’t end up dead in the back of a Cadillac wasn’t for lack of trying.
In the stillness of L.A.’s House of Blues, the big man moves forward into the light, guitar mute at his side, arms down, hands upturned, imploring.
Separating the artist from the art is always a problem, even more so with Earle because the line between his life and his writing is permeable and his presentation so plain. Earle has a less than classic voice, rough, with limited range, but he has made it into an exceptionally expressive instrument. He sings conversationally, altering cadence and inflection. He snarls and purrs, rasps and roars, and sometimes sings so quietly and intently that each intake of breath sends chills through the room. Without a sound from The Dukes, he lets go the opening lines of “Hurtin’ Me, Hurtin’ You.”
Here I am
Out in the rain
I know I can’t
Ever wash out the pain.
The words are blurted out like a midnight confession. Earle stands up there alone, exposed, abject to the dark room, to the crowd, to God knows who or what. It’s an act of awful surrender, and you immediately feel the ache that prompts it. You’re chilled by the pain, warmed by the generosity.
Earle is fond of quoting the late Townes Van Zandt to the effect that there are only two kinds of music: the blues and zippity-doo-dah.
“This,” he’ll say, launching into one of his many songs about bad feelings, “ain’t zippity-doo-dah.”
No, indeed, this most definitely ain’t. With Earle, it almost never is.
Seeing Nashville’s Music Row for the first time is like seeing a nuclear bomb in a museum. It’s hard to fathom so much destructive power in such a modest package. The Row is two ordinary, leafy one-way streets–16th and 17th avenues, south of Division Street–each less than a mile long. The streets are lined mainly with old homes converted to office space for production and publishing companies. A few newer, bland brick-and-stone office buildings house the big record companies that dominate country music: MCA, RCA, Curb, Mercury, Sony and Universal.
The Row inhabits much grander symbolic space. Nashville is the capital of the country music empire and The Row is its throne. For decades, the people who sit here have defined, and frequently constrained, country music. They have regarded their principal occupation as protecting country music from anyone who would invigorate it. They are the people who kept Hank Williams and Willie Nelson from the Grand Ole Opry stage. They are the people who in one era exiled electric guitars from their recording studios and banjos in another.
They are the people who always know better. And when it came to Steve Earle, boy, did they know better. They were right, too; he wasn’t one of them. “There are those that break and bend,” Earle wrote in one song. “I’m the other kind.”
Consider: “I was at this party one night. I was balancing on a wall about 15 feet above 16th Avenue in front of these peoples’ houses. I had nitrous oxide, one of those whipped cream dispensers, in one hand, and a bottle of tequila with 16 hits of LSD dissolved in it in the other, and a joint this long, and I’m balancing on this wall at this party and this girl gets out of this cab. She looks up. It was love at first sight.”
That’s Earle talking. He’s referring to a specific incident from his early days in Nashville, but it could serve as an all-purpose description of an entire decade: lots of drugs, all of which he consumed; lots of girls, many of whom he married.
Earle arrived in Nashville from south Texas in 1974. He was 19. He landed a $75-a-week job writing songs for a music publishing company, studying in the university for songwriters that convened nightly all over town wherever guitars and songwriters gathered.
He scuffled at the bottom of Nashville’s scrap heap for more than a decade, lining up and losing record deals, writing songs nobody wanted to record. Nashville was going through one of its periodic purges, trying to make itself more palatable to more people by rubbing out every trace of its roots. Earle’s songs were deemed too country.
Finally he signed a contract with MCA records and recorded the career-making “Guitar Town.” That album kick-started a roots-rock revival still gathering speed today. “Guitar Town” remains fresh, uncluttered and unpretentious and sounds as though it could have been made any time in the last 40 years.
Earle’s subsequent recordings moved further from the country mainstream. His third album’s hit single, “Copperhead Road,” a dark narrative in which moonshine begets dope dealing, reached the Top 10 on rock radio. The album, with its skull-and-crossbones logo tattooed on Earle’s shoulder, a growing heroin addiction and an arrest for assaulting a security guard at one of his own concerts cemented his hillbilly-from-hell persona.
“We spent a lot of time in those years hanging out at biker bars because that’s where he could get drugs,” says Dan Gillis, Earle’s road manager at the time. “Shows would get pretty wild at times. But he always did them.”
By 1990, when he recorded his fourth album, Earle had a fifth wife, Teresa Ensenat. Not long after, MCA dropped him. He and Teresa moved to Los Angeles, where Earle added crack cocaine to his repertoire. He made a few attempts to write songs, even had discussions about new record deals, but mainly spent his time scoring dope in East Hollywood and shooting it up in a locked bathroom at home in Larchmont Village.
Teresa tried intervention, she tried threats. When she ran out of those, she packed him into her car, drove him to his parents’ home in Texas, dumped him and left for Nashville. Earle begged her to let him join her there. She agreed, he relapsed and she left. She hasn’t spoken to him since. Earle fell off the edge of the known world. “I didn’t see him for four years. Couldn’t find him. Nobody knew where he was,” Gillis says.
Earle brought the same voraciousness to being a junkie that he brings to everything else. He moved out of his suburban Nashville home, pawned everything in it and lived in flophouses in south Nashville, his “vacation in the ghetto,” as he puts it. He lived off royalty checks, the richest junkie in town. As he later put it in the song “South Nashville Blues”:
I took my pistol and a hundred dollar bill.
I had everything I needed to get me killed.
He was arrested, finally, in 1994 for heroin possession. He pleaded guilty in exchange for what routinely would have been a slap on the wrist, then was arrested again while out on bail awaiting sentencing. The angry judge gave him a year in jail, but relented after he had served a month and sent him to a rehabilitation center, where he finally, and completely, cleaned up. Going to jail, Earle belatedly understood, saved his life.
The Row had washed its hands of Earle long before he went to jail; it wanted nothing to do with him when he got out. Hat acts and pretty girls ruled the charts. Earle was clean for the first time in 20 years but weighed about a ton, with no hats and definitely no pretty. Without a record contract and anyone to tell him what not to do, he went into the studio in 1995 and recorded “Train a Comin’, ” an all-acoustic album of songs he had always wanted to sing that no record executive wanted to hear, including some of the first songs he ever wrote, long narratives about the Civil War and mercenaries, a Beatles tune, a Jamaican hillbilly concoction that has to be the weirdest reggae number ever caught on tape and a song called “Goodbye,” one of the saddest, most pitiless songs ever written, an addict’s plea for forgiveness.
The album came out of nowhere on a nothing label and shocked everyone but Earle. Almost before the last rave review was written, Earle was back in the studio, making another, utterly different record. “I Feel Alright” was rougher, deeper and scarier. The title manifesto, one of Earle’s “state-of-me songs,” makes sobriety sound like a threat. “Now some of you would live through me, lock me up and throw away the key. Or find a place to hide away, hope that I’ll just go away. Huh!” It is simply one of the best records ever made in Nashville.
Inside of a year, during which he toured full time, he put out another record, “El Corazon,” just as good. The latter two albums cover an almost impossible range of American popular music history, no-bones-about-it rock-‘n’-roll, bluegrass, finger-picked Delta blues and even a Chet Baker-inspired ballad. There are rock anthems, classic country weepers, narratives as intricate and finely detailed as novels, and rockabilly jaunts that might get Elvis tapping his toes, even given his current abode. “El Corazon” alone includes appearances by a bluegrass band, a country gospel vocal quartet, a Seattle punk band, an English folk singer and alternative country queen Emmylou Harris.
Earle started the record company E-Squared, began producing other acts both on and off that label, taught a college course in songwriting and threw himself full-bore into political activism, corresponding with inmates, demonstrating against the death penalty, economic injustice, homelessness, land mines and whatever else anybody asked him to.
He signed a distribution deal with Warner Bros., and the new records sold respectably, into the hundreds of thousands. The sales are especially noteworthy since little of the music reached radio. Earle spans too many genres to fit into that rigidly categorized world, but by sheer force of ability he seemed destined for a breakthrough. Characteristically then, he decided his next album would be something entirely different: authentic bluegrass. If there was anything that sold less than genre-blended country-rock records, it was bluegrass. You can’t do that, Warner said. Watch me, Earle said. That was that. The distribution deal was toast.
Earle is compulsively contrary, but this decision seemed perverse even by his standards. As he once told an audience, “I used to be a folk singer. The thing about being a folk singer is they have lots of rules. I don’t do rules.”
Bluegrass is complex, sophisticated music, harder to play well than almost anything in contemporary pop, but it is by definition rural, as opposed to country, and is largely viewed as a hillbilly stain on the pretty city clothes worn on The Row. Earle says simply: “It’s music I really love.” He had long revered Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, and hung out with bluegrass players from the time he first arrived in Nashville. “They were the other guys that smoked pot. When I got to town, it’s like, who you gonna go borrow a cup of marijuana from? It wasn’t gonna be Chet Atkins.”
Earle called up the Del McCoury Band, decidedly not marijuana smokers, but generally regarded as the best traditional bluegrass outfit in the world, asked if it’d be interested in collaborating. Del said yes. Earle said, I’ll write the songs and holler. Three months later they were in the studio.
Earle released “The Mountain” on his own label. It was an aesthetic triumph, including red-hot breakdowns that might have made even old Mr. Bill smile and at least one that would make him weep, “Pilgrim,” a gorgeous mountain gospel lament written upon the death of Earle’s friend and sometime bass player, Roy Huskey Jr. It’s the best evocation of a blessed hereafter ever written by someone unsure whether there is such a thing. Rather than being a commercial disaster, the album sold slightly more than 100,000 records in its first year, among the highest first-year sales in bluegrass history.
For such a committed outsider, Earle writes from the inside of whatever tradition he sets a song in. If it’s country, then there is a full, unembarrassed embrace of country. There is no irony, just exposure of simple emotional truths. He’s not a tourist; he moves in. He treats political engagement the same way. He doesn’t merely talk about the death penalty, he marches, stands in all-night vigils, writes letters, visits inmates, lobbies Congress. Three of his best-known songs examine different aspects of the death penalty. “Billy Austin,” “Ellis Unit One” and “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song)” detail the sapping of the spirit of everyone the death penalty comes in contact with.
“Austin” is told from an uncomprehending killer’s point of view. “Ellis,” written for the 1995 movie “Dead Man Walking,” is narrated by a death row guard who has nightmares about his job. “Over Yonder,” the most recent and complex of the three, grew out of Earle’s correspondence with a Texas death row inmate, Jonathan Nobles, who asked Earle to witness his execution so he could be sure there was at least one person present who didn’t hate him. (Earle did so.) “Over Yonder” details Nobles’ parceling out his meager belongings.
Give my radio to Johnson.
Thibodeaux can have my fan.
Take my Bible home to mama.
Call her every now and then.
Nobles brutally murdered two people, but by all accounts he was deeply remorseful. He foresaw relief, if not comfort, in death.
The world’ll turn around without me, the sun’ll come up in the east,
Shinin’ down on all of them that hate me. I hope my goin’ brings ’em peace.
The song’s chorus is an outright embrace of death’s liberation.
I am going over yonder where no ghost can follow me.
There’s another place beyond here where I’ll be free. I believe.
Simply because of the subject matter, these songs are intense, but Earle brings the same unsettling passion to more common subjects. “Rock ‘n’ roll is about tension more than it is anything else. Really good pop records. Really good country records, really good whatever, tension’s what I respond to,” he says. “I mean, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ makes your neck hurt by the time it’s over. It’s a perfect pop record. And then you want to play it on the jukebox again to make your neck hurt some more.”
The vocabulary of any pop genre is limited. That’s part of what “pop-ness” is; it’s simple, accessible, unstudied. The best pop music performers, though, are anything but unstudied, and genre limitations drive them outside. Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Prince, Madonna absorb everything that comes near–a Little Richard yelp here, a Jimmy Rogers yodel there. In doing this they operate outside the limits of where we suppose they are. Earle knows this eclecticism confuses the marketplace, but he is fundamentally unwilling, maybe unable, to restrict himself. His comeback is a heartening story, but the personal triumph obscures a professional dilemma that, if it has changed at all, has worsened. The hardest-working and among the best singer-songwriters in America can’t get on the radio. Earle crosses all categories, fits in none. He’s hardly alone. Much of the very best popular music, that with its roots dug deepest into the core of American history, is almost never heard on the radio. Woody Guthrie could well be among us today and no one but members of his cult would know his name.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to sell 20 million records at this point,” Earle says. “But I’m always a threat to sell a million or 2 million. It could happen, you know. There’s still adults out there that want to buy records.”
“Steve’s had chances to get bigger,” says Gillis, who graduated from being Earle’s bus driver to tour manager to manager. “Garth Brooks called, wanted to do a song together. Steve says, ‘You know, half of me thinks maybe I could be big. I should do it.’ Then he says, ‘No, I really couldn’t do it. Our careers are on such different paths.’ As his manager, I say, ‘I think you’re nuts. Because it’s a lot of money. It’s Garth’s last album. Everybody’s going to buy it.’ But that’s Steve.”
That’s part of the problem, too. Steve Earle is gonna be Steve Earle come hell or high water. He is notoriously inhospitable to audience requests. At one show last year, he answered a shouted demand for a song by saying: “You really think I’m not gonna play that, man? I wanna get out of [here] alive. But I’m gonna play it when I get good and ready to. Take a deep breath. I always found that that helped. Big breath. In through your nose and out your mouth.”
Earle seems almost hurt when questioned about this:
“I don’t think I deserve my reputation for being difficult that much,” he says. ” I can be [a jerk], but I do work hard and I do take it seriously, so sometimes it was because somebody else was [a jerk]. It’s not always my fault. I don’t sell tons and tons of records, but I do sell records to the same people over and over and over again. They just absolutely buy every single one. They piss me off from time to time just because it’s like, when your fan base is that small, comparatively, they really do think it’s their deal. And so every once in a while, it’s like I have to tell them, ‘OK, this is my job, not your job.’ ”
Earle in many ways is like a big, precocious kid, protected by his talent, unfettered and sometimes unmannered, always utterly sure and usually righteous in his certainty. This has earned him a reputation in some quarters of being, shall we say, prickly. You don’t get six wives and five record companies because you’re a go-along, get-along kind of guy.
Earle and I are in the gilded lobby of the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego. We’re seated on chairs that look too delicate to do the job, and suddenly I feel the urge to give Earle advice about women.
Well, I start to say, the thing about women is–I stop. Earle has just told me that he has lately been writing more songs to appeal directly to women. When he returned to performing after his rehab, he discovered his audience had aged; it looked an awful lot like him: middle-aged white guys getting uglier by the minute. He says he for once consciously set out to broaden his appeal.
Fair enough. He’s entitled to do whatever it takes, as he puts it, to make his audience less hairy and ugly, and sell more records, too. He says he thinks he has a sensitive, feminine side that women find attractive. Then he starts to name some of his “chick songs.” He includes one early number called “Fearless Heart.”
“Fearless Heart” is the story of a guy telling a girl he doesn’t plan to sit around pining over his recently broken heart. His fearless heart allows him to jump right back in. And she’s the lucky one he’s planning to jump with. Or on.
This is basically a song about a guy trying to score. Somehow, I can’t imagine any of the women I’ve ever known falling for that. On the other hand, Earle has been married six times, so who am I to tell him what appeals to women?
Many of Earle’s “chick songs” are about a guy apologizing for screwing up yet one more time. Maybe for most women that’s enough. At least he knows he screwed up. Maybe that is “feminine.” I don’t think so. I think Earle’s appeal is the opposite. Earle, hopelessly, is a guy. That’s what women find attractive. He’s like a middle linebacker taking up golf. He’s a great athlete so he might actually be able to do it, but every time you see him swing, you’re going to think, “What’s that football player doing chasing that little ball around? He’ll never catch it.”
Whether he writes songs that appeal to women or not, Earle has definitely lost much of the macho swagger of his early career. His music has become more melodic, his lyrics more nuanced. His narrative concision and gifts for the telling detail of life on the outside looking in have often drawn comparisons to Bruce Springsteen. But Springsteen and his characters are usually yearning to break free, to get away. Earle wants the opposite. He is yearning to come home. His great subject is loss. Even most of his love songs are about losing love, not finding it. On “Transcendental Blues,” his last album, a wonderful ballad called “I Don’t Want To Lose You Yet” takes this to an extreme. The singer mourns the loss of a lover before there’s even a hint she’ll be gone.
“Transcendental” sounds like a happy record, the mature work of a reflective man, but 12 of its 15 songs are about loneliness or loss. Even for a country record, this is excessive. It isn’t quiet contemplative loss, either. It’s a survey of wreckage. Michael Ondaatje says it exhibits Earle’s rare ability for “enthusiastic embrace of the imperfect.”
“Loss happens. There isn’t anything you can do about it,” Earle says. “People that you love are going to die. People that you love are going to leave. And, you know, it is self-indulgent to bog down in it. And I think if you can make art out of it, if you can make something beautiful out of it, it’s a really great way not only for you to deal with it, but the reason people’ll stick quarters in jukeboxes until they quit having them is because it helps them deal with the everyday bumps and bruises they get emotionally just being people.”
Earle regards one loss song above all others, “Goodbye,” from “Train a Comin.” It’s about the end of his marriage to Ensenat, who he belatedly realized was trying to save him from himself.
“There were some nights, I’d be singing that song, and I’d be like, ‘This is it. This is what it’s all about. People are getting this because it’s absolutely real, and it hurts every time I sing it.’ ”
Earle’s lack of formal education made him increasingly self-conscious as he got older and more ambitious. He remedied this by reading everything he could get his hands on. He’ll now discuss with you the preferred translation of classic haiku or Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “The Master and Margarita.” He can also tell you who the 10th man in the Yankee bullpen is and speak knowingly about the Geto Boys’ second album. In all of this, he is funny, often insightful and always profane.
When he came back from jail, he put all the effort he had given to being a junkie (and time, he says; copping dope is labor intensive) into recovery and writing. Hence, the five albums in six years. Finally, afraid he’d wear down from the constant touring and wanting to tend to kids and ex-wives and a new romantic relationship, he decided he’d start writing stuff he didn’t have to spend half the year in a tour bus to sell. He started writing fiction.
“Doghouse Roses,” a collection of 11 harrowing short stories, many about people at the end of one rope or another, was published in the summer. The book is selling in numbers generally unheard of for first-time authors of short fiction. Houghton Mifflin has already gone back for a second printing.
He’s finishing a play on the death of Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War. He and his girlfriend (she’s smart, he says, and refuses to marry him) have started a theater company in Nashville to produce it. Earle is looking for a property to house the company, a theater and maybe a recording studio. Earlier, when he reached a point in writing the play where he had to wait for the arrival of research materials, “I just couldn’t not write anything, so I started a novel.” In one three-month stretch last year, he wrote “five poems, four songs and 19,000 words of prose.”
Even for Earle, or Earle-wind, as his record company staff call him, this is a ferocious pace.
“The deal is it’s not so much making up for lost time as it is I have a duty to make art,” he says. That Earle can talk about this “duty” matter-of-factly and without evident vanity is a measure of his absolute faith in himself. He has always conveyed this sense of assurance. He suffered for it. Now, finally, there is some evidence he deserves it. “I’m privileged, and something or somebody bigger than we are gave me a gift, and I have an absolute obligation to use it. When I didn’t use it, when I started abusing it, bad [stuff] started happening to me. As soon as I stopped abusing it, bad [stuff] stopped happening to me. I mean, my friends still die and I’m still going to die, and it hurts, but I occasionally get something beautiful back out of all that.”
“I created a lot of chaos in my life but I consider myself to be a really, really, incredibly fortunate human being. You know, if I’d died in ’91, I don’t think my last thing going out woulda been, ‘Boy, I really got a rough deal.’ I woulda thought, ‘You know what? I’ve been able to do something I really loved.’ And I never lost sight of that. I think that’s one of the main reasons I’m still alive.”
Nashville is full of streets that don’t go anywhere, or if they do, change names a couple times before getting there. This can make finding your way more difficult than it ought to be. Earle plows ahead.
These days, he’s traded in the lease-back Cadillacs and tools around town in a big black Ford F-150 crew cab. Nobody’s touting him now as the next savior of country music. Country music, as it turned out, didn’t want to be saved by anybody, least of all by some borderline Marxist, rock-‘n’-roll-leaning, hell-raising, bike-riding doper. Earle’s moved on, leaving the Harleys, the dope and the country music establishment behind. They had their chance. He has bigger fish to fry. He’d be pleased, thank you much, to save the whole damn globe from itself. He’ll battle the death penalty, dig up the land mines, house the homeless, pay the poor, feed the farmers, and, hey, why not, kick a little Hemingway ass along the way and write the great American novel.
These are big plans for a guy who’s been on the losing end of almost every fight he’s ever fought–with record company executives, trigger-happy governors, club-happy cops, fans, wives and country music’s reigning big hat acts.
That’s OK. Earle doesn’t mind another fight. He’s already fought the hard one. He’s saved himself, always a man’s biggest challenge.