You might know him as reformed drug addict Walon
in "The Wire," or as Harley Watt
from "Treme," or maybe even as the beardy, eyeglasses-wearing dude in the all-star "Give a Kidney"
group on "30 Rock." But do you know Steve Earle?
Ladies and gentlemen, please let me introduce you to this American treasure -- Grammy-winning singer and songwriter, activist, writer, actor, father, and the last of the hardcore troubadours.
Stephen Fain Earle was born with his feet in two worlds
. A family story is that he was born in Virginia, but the first soil his feet touched was a pan of Texas dirt in the delivery room, sent by his Texan grandparents. Not many years later, he made his way to Texas, coming under the mentorship of singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, and then to Nashville, writing for Elvis Presley (a session that fell through), touring behind Guy Clark, and eventually releasing several albums.
His best-known song, "Copperhead Road,"
is about illegal trade in the backwoods. Earle knew trouble: he was convicted of possessing heroin and cocaine, and served a brief stint in jail before entering rehab in the early 1990s.
[As part of an agreement with the court, Earle promised to perform for prisoners after his release. "To Hell and Back"
was filmed live in 1996 at Tennessee’s Cold Creek Correctional Facility where Earle had been incarcerated in 1994. (It includes my favorite cover of Bob Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry."
His creative renaissance came after prison. The bluegrass-flavored "Train a Comin'"
(here in concert, 2011) paired him with Emmylou Harris, Peter Rowan, Norman Blake and Roy Huskey; it was nominated for a Grammy in 1996. Several albums later, he returned to the bluegrass sound, teaming with The Del McCoury Band to make "The Mountain"
(also Grammy nominated; seen here in concert in 2012); rumor has it that Del McCoury was upset by Earle's, uh, earthy language, but they nevertheless reunited for Farm Aid. (As Earle jokes on a subsequent album, "Remember friends, there is no place in vulgarity for bluegrass.") In between making the next seven albums of his career, Earle has written two books, performed all over the world, married several times, acted in "The Wire" and "Treme" (here he is performing the season closer "This City"
), campaigned against the death penalty
(warning: upsetting first-person discussion), and founded a record label.
His songs have also been covered
by a wide range of artists, including:
* Joan Baez, "Christmas in Washington"
* Johnny Cash, "Devil's Right Hand"
* Guy Clark, "Ft. Worth Blues"
* Ricky Skaggs, "Hillbilly Highway"
* Buddy Miller, "I'm Not Getting Any Better at Goodbye"
* Carl Perkins, "Mustang Wine"
* Robert Earl Keen, "Tom Ames' Prayer"
* Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter, "Someday"
* Wanda Jackson, "Graveyard Shift"
A few of my favorite duets:
* "Sin City,"
with Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch
* "Johnny Come Lately"
(the recording of), with The Pogues
* "Carrie Brown,"
with the Del McCoury Band
* "The Mountain,"
with Levon Helm
with Emmylou Harris
* "Drunken Angel,"
with Lucinda Williams
* "The Ghost of Tom Joad,"
with Tom Morello
* "I'm Still in Love With You,"
with Iris Dement and the Del McCoury Band
His most famous words may be those he provided for a blurb on a Townes Van Zandt album: “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan‘s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” But he has much, much more to say:
* Studio Q with Jian Ghomeshi
: "Steve Earle sits down in Studio Q to talk about Townes Van Zandt the late songwriting legend and the influence he had on his music and life."
* Studio Q with Jian Ghomeshi
: "Steve Earle sits in with Jian Ghomeshi on the occasion of the release of his album "I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive" to talk about capital punishment, the loss of his father, and his relationship with God."
* CBC interview with George Stroumboulopoulos
(clip): On fatherhood, autism, and guns.
* Men's Journal interview: Steve Earle's Recession Blues
."That character is the spirit of everybody who grew up in a small town but doesn't recognize it anymore because there is no hardware store, no mom-and-pop gas station, no local diner where they know the last three generations that worked there."
* Interview with The Telegraph
: On writing, and why he's a "Harry Potter" fan.
* Interview with CMT
: On current events and their relationship to his songwriting.
* Q&A with nola.com
, on his experience with "Treme" and the city of New Orleans (spoilers).
* In conversation with photographer Zoe Strauss
; from the Art and Social Transformation Lecture Series. Includes discussion about Earle's activism against the death penalty, his views on recent political issues, making art, and Hank Williams.
* Thirsty Ear Magazine interview
: On folk music, political activism, and stealing your girlfriend.
And for all of your "Hey, I know one of his songs, but I can't remember the lyrics" needs: The Original Unofficial Steve Earle Site
I am standing on your internet in my bare feet and saying this: Steve Earle is a badass. And a great artist. Enjoy getting to know him.