Steve Earle: Roots, Boots, Hank, Walon, and Being a Hardcore Troubadour
August 10, 2013 8:35 PM   Subscribe

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" (snippet)

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
* "Goodbye," 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, 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.
posted by MonkeyToes (51 comments total) 106 users marked this as a favorite
Dude doesn't even need to make up stories for his songs -- he's got a country music life.
MEN'S JOURNAL: When's the last time you were in a Walmart?
STEVE EARLE: The year that my last girlfriend ran off with the kids' soccer coach. She took the Christmas tree with her, decided it was hers. So I got a Christmas tree at Walmart. That was 11 years ago.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 8:44 PM on August 10, 2013 [9 favorites]

Earle is a real mensch. Awesome post -- thanks!!
posted by allthinky at 8:46 PM on August 10, 2013

Got to see Steve in concert a few weeks ago for the first time; definitely an opportunity you shouldn't pass up.

Ps> Awesome post.
posted by jferg at 9:07 PM on August 10, 2013

I've always loved his music casually, having been given a copy of El Corazon around the time it came out, but my Road to Damascus moment when I realized he was a motherfucking prophet was just a couple years ago when I rented Just an American Boy, which documents the controversial release of Jerusalem. That album is quite simply a masterpiece of American art.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:14 PM on August 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

posted by nathancaswell at 9:20 PM on August 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Elijah's Church
posted by nathancaswell at 9:23 PM on August 10, 2013

PPS Mercenary Song
PPPS Harlan Man
PPPPS I love Steve Earle and I look forward to this becoming the comprehensive Earle thread
posted by nathancaswell at 9:25 PM on August 10, 2013

Yeah, I love Earle for his politics, so The Revolution Starts Now is also a favorite, but my favorite ballad of his is also from that album. I'm struck by the raw honesty of I thought you should know.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:26 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Steve's cover of his mentor's ballad, Pancho and Lefty is one of my favorite things in the world. Despite it having been covered numerous other times, Steve's version just sounds...right.
Also the fully-acoustic version of "Copperhead Road" that was released as a bonus track to (I think) El Corazon is frickin' amazing.
posted by jferg at 9:39 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have lots of CDs but I am still going to click every music link here. Thanks!

PS- Post needs more Guitar Town.
posted by cccorlew at 9:46 PM on August 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

Politics and music +1. Saw him at an adult alternative radio event brown bag. He gave properrespect due to the banjo's African roots, which is something I had never seen a whiteboy musician do in the South.
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 9:51 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thank you MonkeyToes, and thank YOU Steve. Or should I call you Mister Earle? Or Speedo? (joke)

"...there is no place in vulgarity for bluegrass." Considering some of the 'arts' that are very comfortably located smack dab in the middle of vulgarity, good for bluegrass.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:52 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

At some point in the late 90's I remember the hot item to own was a "In a perfect world, Steve Earle would rule Nashville." I didn't have one, but having spent some of the Bill Boner years in Nashville, I remember thinking how true that was on so many levels...

So, in honor of this post, here's Steve covering one of my all time favorite G. Parson & C. Hillman songs: My Uncle.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 9:54 PM on August 10, 2013

Oh God, him in that Metallica shirt recording Johnny Come Lately with the Pogues, fuck.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:00 PM on August 10, 2013

(clearly coked out of his mind)
posted by nathancaswell at 10:01 PM on August 10, 2013

There have been times when I have listened to Ft. Worth Blues literally hundreds of times in a row.
posted by akaJudge at 10:09 PM on August 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am appalled that none of y'all have yet linked to his love song to Condoleeza Rice.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 10:12 PM on August 10, 2013

He also did a damn fine cover of Little Feat's Willin'.

(and here is where I formally thank ColdChef for including "Telephone Road" on a CD he sent to me and my wife several years ago that led to both of us saying "Who is that guy? What else has he done? That's great stuff!") Thanks, CC!
posted by Curious Artificer at 10:33 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is the best time of the day—the dawn
The final cleansing breath unsullied yet
By acrid fume or death’s cacophony
The rank refuse of unchained ambition
And pray, deny me not but know me now,
Your faithful retainer stands resolute
To serve his liege lord without recompense
Perchance to fall and perish namelessly
No flag-draped bier or muffled drum to set
The cadence for a final dress parade
But it was not always thus—remember?
Once you worshipped me and named me a god
In many tongues and made offering lest
I exact too terrible a tribute

Take heed for I am weary, ancient
And decrepit now and my time grows short
There are no honorable frays to join

Only mean death dealt out in dibs and dabs
Or horror unleashed from across oceans
Assail me not with noble policy
For I care not at all for platitude
And surrender such tedious detail
To greater minds than mine and nimbler tongues
Singular in their purpose and resolve
And presuming to speak for everyman

Oh, for another time, a distant field
And there a mortal warrior’s lonely grave
But duty charges me remain until
The end the last battle of the last war
Until that ‘morrow render unto me
That which is mine my stipend well deserved
The fairest flower of your progeny
Your sons, your daughters your hopes and your dreams
The cruel consequence of your conceit

posted by Devils Rancher at 10:34 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Massive post! Thanks, MonkeyToes !
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:56 PM on August 10, 2013

In about 1986, my father in law was dying of brain cancer. To give my mother in law a few hours break, I would go over and spend the night at their house to help out. My FIL liked to stay up all night talking with Nashville Network playing in the background. Guitar Town was in heavy rotation at the time. Whenever I hear that song, it reminds me of the many nights we spent while he reminisced and told me stories of his life. We grew a lot closer, and I'll always treasure the memories of that time. He was only 50.

I can't go without leaving a link to Home to Houston, which is one of Steve Earle's very best IMO.
posted by Daddy-O at 10:57 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Whoah! Thanks for this. I loved Earle on The Wire and knew a little of his story, but never had the chance to look into his music. This'll be the perfect opportunity!
posted by evil otto at 11:21 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Steve also has an album with the most kickass name of all time: Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator.
posted by Rangeboy at 11:34 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Steve also is host on The Steve Earle Show: Hardcore Troubadour Radio, Saturdays 9 pm ET on Sirius XM. The song.
posted by shockingbluamp at 12:16 AM on August 11, 2013

Steve Earle should have been dead a few times over and it's a damn good thing he isn't.

I've always loved his "Dixieland" (inspired by the Killer Angels) and one of the best longing for Ireland songs ever : Galway Girl
posted by drewbage1847 at 12:22 AM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've always loved Domestic Blues, the Bap Kennedy album he produced and played/sang on. It's a fantastic album and a perfect pairing.
posted by fshgrl at 12:51 AM on August 11, 2013

Picked up a copy of his novel last summer, just an impulse buy based on name recognition; didn't really have high hopes and promptly forgot about it. Then at some point last winter I ran out of things to read and found it jammed between two bigger books on my bookshelf. Gotta say I was pleasantly surprised. I think the reason it worked so well is he recognized his limitations and didn't swing for the fences, just told a nice simple story of tragedy and redemption, with a touch of the supernatural. Here's a brief plot summary from wikipedia:

The novel is set in San Antonio, Texas in 1963, and tells the story of a defrocked doctor and morphine addict. The doctor makes a living by performing illegal abortions and is haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams, with whom he was traveling when Williams died of an overdose.
posted by mannequito at 1:13 AM on August 11, 2013

Steve Earle’s got a collection of short stories called Doghouse Roses out too, which is also well worth a read. He's written a play too (Karla), which I'm still kicking myself for managing to miss when it was briefly staged at a small theatre here in London.
posted by Paul Slade at 2:24 AM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Earle's John Walker Blues really provided an alternate view in the early jingoistic years after 9-11.

Just now realizing that Cash covered Earle on Devil's Right Hand. Totally assumed it was the other way around.
posted by Brodiggitty at 3:44 AM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Walon was Steve Earle?
Whoa, what rock have I been hiding under
posted by angrycat at 4:04 AM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Clearly it's been too long since I've listened to Steve Earle. Also, I had no idea he was acting. One of the coolest concerts I ever saw was the "Tell Us The Truth" tour in 2003 with (all on stage at the same time) Steve Earle, Tom Morello, Mike Mills, Lester Chambers, Billy Bragg, Boots Riley and probably a few others I can't recall right now. It must have been a very interesting tour bus ride.
posted by lordrunningclam at 5:42 AM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Huh, love Earle's music, never knew he did so much acting. Definitely go see him in concert.

It's worth noting that his family is pretty great too. His son Justin Townes Earle, his sister Stacey and his (current) wife Allison Moorer are all worth seeking out.
posted by octothorpe at 5:44 AM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

A few years back when he was touring in support of his "Townes" album, Steve Earle was playing near me as the opening act for Jackson Browne. Earle did a nice acoustic set but most of the crowd wasn't into it. In between acts, the guy next to me (about my age, so let's be generous and say middle-aged) was so excited that Jackson Browne was about to start. He was jumping up and down, exchanging high-fives with the people around him. And he just couldn't understand that I came for the opening act. It was like we were speaking completely different languages.

And then as Jackson Browne was building toward the climax of his show, this guy who had been so excited earlier jumped up and hurried out of the amphitheater missing the last few songs so he could beat the traffic out of the parking lot.
posted by maurice at 5:57 AM on August 11, 2013

From the Department of Great Liner Notes:

"When I was locked up, I was getting ready to go off on this boy that stole my radio. My partner Paul asked me where I was going. I said, "To get my radio - and then go to the hole for a little while." He looked at me like I look at my 13-year-old sometimes and he said, "No, you ain't. You're gonna sit your little white ass down and do your little time and then you're gonna get out of here and make me a nice record." SO I MADE TWO.

Steve Earle
November, 1995 "

In the spirit of Nick Hornby (who profiled Earle for The New Yorker in 2000), my baker's dozen of Steve Earle favorites:

"Carrie Brown"
"Feel Alright"
"Harlan Man"
"Texas Eagle"
"State Trooper"
"Tom Ames' Prayer"
"Transcendental Blues"
"This City"
"Way Down in the Hole"

That is some damn fine work. AND HE HAS MADE LOTS.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:26 AM on August 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

Thanks so much for this post.

I am a huge Steve Earle fan. It was kind inevitable, I guess - Willie led me to Guy Clark. Guy Clark led me to Townes. And Townes led me to Steve. It's the modern end of a very long and virulent strain/chain of Texas-troubador-poet tradition.

He's one of the few who have the natural gift of painting with words. That I agree with his politics is a bonus; the wordsmithing alone is reward enough.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:36 AM on August 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Love him. Related to his death penalty activism, one of my favorites has always been Ellis Unit One from the Dead Man Walking film soundtrack.
posted by Arch_Stanton at 7:15 AM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Somewhere in a box in the basement I have a cassette of the soundboard audio from a show he did at club outside Chicago in 1985 or 86. I worked there at the time and managed to get the sound guy to give me the tape afterwards, as long as I promised not to sell it. Dwight Yoakam's Guitars, Cadillacs and Earle's Guitar Town were the only two records we played for weeks and weeks that summer.

I remember Earle, Yoakam and Randy Travis (or maybe it was Clint Black?) appearing on Oprah one year in the late 80's, as the "rising stars in country music" or somesuch. Funny how all three had successful careers, but in completely different directions.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:36 AM on August 11, 2013

If I had a vote, you'd get it for post of the month, MonkeyToes.
posted by DigDoug at 8:03 AM on August 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Here's a chestnut: Steve and Lyle Lovett doing a rendition of Townes Van Zandt's Lungs. (Steve's a little rough on this one, but it's a keeper. Also the video looks weird right now, I'm not sure if it's my connection or what - it hasn't always been like that.)
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:11 AM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I LOVE this song by his son, Justin Townes Earle. And from Steve Earle's Townes album, Marie is completely devastating, but in a different way than the TVZ version.
posted by quiet coyote at 8:47 AM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's worth noting that his family is pretty great too.

Yes. I'm more and more impressed with everything Justin Townes Earle puts out, and Stacey's voice has been a constant comfort to me for many years.

Steve Earle with Stacey Earle - When I Fall
Stacey Earle with Steve Earle - Losers Weep
posted by Lorin at 10:13 AM on August 11, 2013

Seconding the love for Justin Townes Earle!
posted by the quidnunc kid at 11:03 AM on August 11, 2013

Don't miss the Lydia Loveless song Steve Earle.
posted by maurice at 11:13 AM on August 11, 2013

Oh yes yes yes. My parents had every one of his CDs, and he remains one of my very favorites. I probably know 20+ of his songs by heart. Just a couple weekends ago, I sang Carrie Brown at an open mic...
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:38 AM on August 11, 2013

How is it that no one has mentioned his work with Lucinda Williams yet? He was a huge part of her "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road" LP. Many years ago she did a tour where every night she played an album in its entirety, and I lucked out when a coworker's wife got sick, and he invited me to see the show where she did that album - and Steve came out and joined her for most of the show. It was EPIC.

But my introduction to him came via the radio. One night I was driving home from work, and WFUV (here in New York) played "Christmastime in Washington." It was still playing as I pulled into my driveway, and I just sat there in the dark and listened and cried. First thing I did when I got in the house was call the station to find out who the hell he was. That song still gets me, every single time.

Fabulously delicious post, thank you!
posted by flyingsquirrel at 12:08 PM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

P.S. Whoops, just saw the link in the FPP to his duet with Lucinda on "Drunken Angel." Sorry - and yay! :-)
posted by flyingsquirrel at 12:09 PM on August 11, 2013

I loved Earle on The Wire and knew a little of his story, but never had the chance to look into his music.

Funny story from Steve Earle for you, evil otto...
I grew up in Schertz, Texas and attended OG Nederstein Junior High school and I lived on Kirche St., K-I-R-C-H-E - Kirche Street. The original white settlers in this particular part of south Texas were probably of German descent. I know this for a fact because I used to get the shit kicked out of me on a fairly regular basis by great big huge cowboys called “Otto.” They were all called Otto. Otto Bob, Otto Sue…..I didn’t know you could get from Texas to Tennessee any other way but to hitchhike until I was 27 years old, and in my first two years in Nashville, if I wanted to go home for Christmas or something I had to hitchhike my butt back home. First time I attempted that, I was pretty good and I got a ride all the way from Jackson Tennessee all the way to Texas and they dropped me off at Interstate 35 at the Schertz, Texas exit. Now, my parents no longer lived in Schertz, Texas by that time, we were renters and we moved around a lot. But, one time they moved and didn’t tell me…it was like…not on purpose or anything, I just didn’t go home enough. I went home, knocked on the door and this guy came to the door I didn’t know, a great big square-headed cowboy named Otto. I mean it was my mistake, I saw this Schertz Texas exit and I thought, well I’ll go in and check out my old stomping grounds, which turned out to be a huge mistake because it was a transient community right outside the gates of Randolph Air Force Base and yes, I grew up dating those cold-blooded little military girls that would leave you in eighteen months and just flat didn’t care and it fucked me up……or at least that’s the excuse I’ve been operating on. Very quickly, nobody in Schertz, Texas remembered me except the police….they were in the Christmas spirit, however, they gave me a place to stay….no turkey or dressing or nothing. And after extracting a small ransom from my father, I did make it home in time for Christmas dinner. (Cheers) And I did get this song out of the deal. But…I don’t think it was worth it! (More Cheers…) But for whatever it’s worth, this is the Hometown Blues with apologies to Thomas Wolfe and Doc Watson…..”
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:07 PM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Great post, 'Toes. I first heard him on the Grammys doing Guitar Town, I think he was up for Best New Artist (along with Dwight Yoakam). Went out and bought the album shortly after; been a fan ever since. A favorite from that first album: Fearless Heart.
posted by Bron at 8:12 PM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow, great post!

My Steve Earle anecdote: I was lucky to see him perform solo acoustic in Louisville, Kentucky more than 20 years ago, and he was wearing a bandage on one of his hands (but still able to play guitar, fortunately). At one point he said into the mike, "The thumb is the only thing that separates us from the animals and I done broke mine."
posted by Gelatin at 5:19 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

He's one of my favorites. John Walker's Blues is one of my favorite songs because it pisses off the right wingers so much.
posted by mike3k at 11:13 PM on August 12, 2013

Oh, hey -- David Simon on Steve Earle: "I learned something else about him on that, his first trip to Baltimore to work on “The Wire,” and it’s this: Steve Earle is a genuinely smart soul, an autodidact of astonishing scope and — albeit with all the mannerisms of an unrepentant redneck — a bit of a Renaissance man." The whole thing is worth a read.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:01 AM on August 14, 2013

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