Following the 1986 release of Guitar Town, Steve Earle was hailed as the savior of country music. Three decades later, and despite personal detours that would have taken a lesser man down, he just might have pulled it off.
Not without some help, though.
Raised outside San Antonio, Earle has done time in prison and in Nashville, and now muscles his way around the streets of New York City. Some sort of hillbilly renaissance man, his impact on songwriting and country music cannot be overstated. This man has advanced the notion of folk music into places never before imagined. Consciousness and conscience. Every melody fresh, every thought committed, every argument sound. Earle is a seer and a flawed messiah, and there is absolutely no telling where he will take us next.
In the early eighties, the country music landscape was bleak for folks intent on creating genuine country music. Steve Earle was one such artist. One that would not be dissuaded, despite Nashville’s best efforts to push him into the mainstream. Earle’s consistent resistance earned him a place in the “outlaw” territory, on the fringes of country and western proper; one foot over the rock and roll border; and a keen eye on the folk horizon.
Earle’s career is a roller coaster tale, fraught with vice, a dismal penchant for marriage and divorce and, most importantly, a gritty determination to find his place in the annals of modern music. He found that place with the aforementioned release of Guitar Town. Up to then, Earle had been somewhat successful at songwriting, his work having been recorded by the likes of Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris and Travis Tritt, among others. In the seventies he held down a gig as bassist for the late Guy Clark, but his recording career remained stalled. Guitar Town changed all that, ushering him in as a new school outlaw who was rewriting the rules and carving out a singular voice.
Since then, Earle has consistently continued to record: always on his own terms, never again a servant of Nashville commercialism or a follower of current trends. The pearls of his career, and there are many, include the definitive Copperhead Road and the joyous I Feel Alright, a comeback LP for Earle, fresh off drugs and productive as all get out. Ever the outlaw, Earle found himself in a more political mood with the 2002 release of Jerusalem, which contained the controversial “John Walker’s Blues.” Terraplane, released in 2015, is steeped in the blues and solid evidence that Earle is still as ornery as he is talented.
Steve Earle’s music — roughly hewn, earnest, sullen yet hopeful, resilient and triumphant — is his own. That’s an achievement not reached by the majority of artists, and it puts him the company or Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and even his hero, Townes Van Zandt. This is directly linked to Earle’s unwavering honesty and steady pursuit of the truth via song, all of which have forever embedded his music into the hard American soil.
Three things to know about Steve Earle, (1) he has won three Grammy Awards, (2) his sister, Stacey Earle, is a singer/songwriter and (3) he has been married seven times, including twice to the same woman.