By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
By Karli Evans
By Jose D. Duran
By Pablo Chacon Alvarez
In the liner notes to his new bluegrass album, Steve Earle concedes his primary motive for engaging in the project in the first place was to achieve immortality.
An "ambitious and selfish" desire to be sure, but as Earle puts it, he "wanted to write just one song that would be performed by at least one band at every bluegrass festival in the world" long after he follows the genre's founder and spiritual father, Bill Monroe, to that home on high.
Musical immortality was the last thing on Earle's mind just a few years ago. After spearheading country music's New Traditionalist movement in the mid-Eighties with the critical and commercial success of his debut album, Guitar Town, Earle fell headlong into a personal and professional tailspin, which at various points would find him as a junkie, a convict, and a pariah within Nashville's image-conscious music community.
Earle hasn't exactly mellowed in recent years, but he does seem to have found a crucial degree of stability after hitting the depths in 1994. Contrary to the cliche (misery is creativity's best fuel), Earle's personal rebound might have actually saved his art.
"I think I'm writing the best stuff I've written," Earle says. "I'm certainly writing a lot more. In the months of October and November alone, I wrote 19,000 words of prose, five poems, and four songs. I've never had a point in my life where I've written that much."
Born in Virginia, Earle grew up in Texas, in a small town north of San Antonio. By age sixteen he left home to become a musician. Settling with a relative in Houston, he came under the sway of a number of Texas troubadours whom he considered idols, most notably the late, great Townes Van Zandt. After spending a few years on the Texas coffeehouse circuit, Earle made the inevitable jump to Nashville to become a star. But success didn't come easily for a performer as unvarnished as Earle. In the Seventies Nashville was squarely in the throes of the Countrypolitan and Urban Cowboy eras.
Apprenticing with Texas compatriot Guy Clark, Earle earned a publishing deal and became a staff writer. Although he had a couple of songs recorded (and another nearly cut by Elvis), times were tough. Eight years after his arrival in Music City, he finally recorded an independently released album of rockabilly tunes that went nowhere. A deal with Epic records was a bigger fiasco, as the label shelved a finished album and a two-year relationship with the headstrong singer in 1985.
But by 1986 Nashville was ready for a change. Country music was experiencing a commercial and creative slump as it struggled to overcome the residue that the insipid Urban Cowboy era had left behind. Earle scored a deal with MCA, and along with Dwight Yoakam, established himself as a leader of a new movement back to the music's roots.
The success of Guitar Town (which went to number one, spawned a pair of Top 10 singles, and earned a Grammy nomination) came to the surprise and chagrin of many in the Nashville community who considered Earle something of a heretic for his appearance, his attitude, and his notorious personal habits. When his 1987 followup, Exit 0, failed to reach the commercial heights of its predecessor, many in Nashville were eager to turn their backs on Earle. Before they had the chance, Earle turned his back on them.
Moving to MCA's pop offices in Los Angeles, Earle's 1988 album Copperhead Road was written and marketed with the intention of bringing him stardom as a rock act. As his addiction to heroin worsened, Earle began to imagine himself as a kind of hillbilly Keith Richards. Romanticizing his habits in song and mythologizing himself in the process, Earle trod a dangerous path. His subsequent releases, 1990's The Hard Way and 1991's Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator, were documents of an artist struggling to determine his musical allegiance. Worse, the effects of his drug habit and excessive lifestyle seemed to be invading his work.
With his drug addiction intensifying and his weight and health dropping to critical levels, MCA unceremoniously dumped him in the early Nineties. In late 1994, after a series of drug-related arrests, he was sentenced to a jail term. It was the lucky break of his career. Transferring between prison and drug treatment for a few months, Earle emerged clean and ready to reclaim his reputation as an artist.
His self-described "vacation in the ghetto" had not robbed him of his talents as a writer or a singer, and Earle set out to make up for lost time with his all-acoustic "comeback" album Train a Comin'. Combining some of his long-neglected originals and a number of personally significant covers, Train was recorded with a crack band of acoustic players including Peter Rowan, Norman Blake, and Roy Huskey, Jr. -- and the vocals of Emmylou Harris. The record was the most honest and personal of his career.
Earle had finally found his place by making a record that didn't seek to appease any interest other than himself. The Beatles' "I'm Looking Through You" fits in perfectly with Townes Van Zandt's "Tecumseh Valley," and Earle's own rough-hewn originals.