Born Stephen Fain Earle on January 17, 1955, in Fort Monroe, VA; son of an air traffic controller and a homemaker; first wife's name, Sandie (divorced); second wife's name, Cynthia (divorced); third wife's name, Carol (divorced, 1985); married Lou-Anne Gill, 1987 (divorced, 1987; remarried, 1993); married Teresa Ensenat (a music industry executive), 1988 (divorced, 1992); children: (with third wife) Justin Townes, (with Gill) Ian. Addresses: Record company--E-Squared, 1815 Division St., Ste. 101, Nashville, TN 37203, website: http://www.e2records.com. Website--Steve Earle Official Website: http://www.steveearle.com.
Steve Earle's career has been derailed several times, primarily because of the singer-songwriter's prickly, rebellious attitude and destructive off-stage habits. But with Earle's larger-than-life persona comes a tremendous talent. "He didn't write no bad songs," country music legend Waylon Jennings told Spin writer Mark Schone. "And if he did, he hid 'em." Earle spent several years as a songwriter for other country musicians, finally earning acclaim with his 1986 major-label debut, Guitar Town. The eight-time Grammy Award nominee has continued making his mark on country-rock and even bluegrass with the albums I Feel Alright, El Corazon, The Mountain, Transcendental Blues, and Jerusalem.
Following Guitar Town, Earle's subsequent albums veered more toward rock and did not receive the critical praise accorded his debut. His career began to head downhill. Personal problems--drug use, several tumultuous marriages, brushes with the law--combined with a sharp tongue helped undo what some felt was assured crossover stardom in country and rock. Almost miraculously, Earle reappeared in 1995 with a new album. "The music business has left Earle for dead so many times that no one really expects him to bounce back anymore," wrote Newsweek's Karen Schoemer in 1995. "So in his utmost ornery fashion, that's exactly what he's doing."
Music and Drugs Marked Teenage Years
Earle was born in Virginia on January 17, 1955, but grew up just outside of San Antonio, Texas, the son of an air-traffic controller. Seduced by music at an early age--Earle claims he remembers seeing Elvis Presley on television at the age of three--he dropped out of school at 14 and eventually moved to Houston. He had already begun playing guitar, as well as experimenting with controlled substances, and by the age of 16 he was performing in local coffeehouses. It was during these early years that he befriended Townes Van Zandt, the legendary Texas singer-songwriter who would become a mentor of sorts to Earle (and, himself a heavy drinker, a bad influence).
Earle left Texas around 1974 to follow Van Zandt to Nashville, Tennessee, the creative and business hub of the country music industry. In between construction jobs, Earle hustled to make an inside industry connection; by 1975 he had become a staff songwriter for a record label. He penned countless songs, though few of them ever made it onto vinyl. By the early 1980s, however, some of his songs had been recorded by artists like rock 'n' roll pioneer Carl Perkins. Earle nonetheless remained frustrated by his lack of success.
Around 1982 Earle recorded a rockabilly-style album, Pink and Black, for an independent label. The LP attracted some attention. Country music's popularity had waned, forcing industry decision-makers to seek out and introduce more unconventional artists. Earle seemed to fit the bill. A contract with MCA, then the most powerful label in country music, led to the release of Guitar Town in 1986. It catapulted Earle to instant stardom, winning critical acclaim and earning him big-name fans, including rock idol Bruce Springsteen. Many of the songs on Guitar Town reflected a life lived on the edge; they were comprised of vignettes he had collected for years and had worked into poignant tunes about the underbelly of American life.
Raves for Guitar Town
"In a voice that recalls the wry, plaintive sparseness of John Prine and the tender tough-guy bravado of [John] Mellencamp, Earle moves through the personal sagas of small-town dreamers, big-love losers, and day-to-day existers hanging on by their fingernails and praying for change," wrote Stereo Review critic Alannah Nash. Jay Cocks of Time noted, "Earle's tunes do not have the sentimentality of mainstream country. They have older echoes: the scarred spirit and lonesome heart of Hank Williams, the grittiness of Johnny Cash, the Bull Run rhythmic charge of another Texas boy, Buddy Holly."
Yet success brought out demons. "Thrilled with the comparisons and lured by the wide world of rock, Earle plunged into the 'no-man's-land' between country music and rock and roll," wrote Schone in Spin. "He lined up Gibsons [guitars] across the stage, played Boss [Springsteen]-like three-hour shows, and awed an audience of hipsters, hicks, punks, and metalheads. But just as he was threatening to go platinum on his own contrarian terms, his bad-boy pose destroyed him." Bourbon, cocaine, heroin, and intravenously self-administered painkillers were Earle's preferred substances of choice, and his blatant use of these coupled with his outlaw attitude cost him supporters in the conservative, company town of Nashville.
Continued Departure from Country
Exit 0, Earle's sophomore studio effort, was released in the summer of 1987. It was his first record with his backing band the Dukes. The work was even edgier than Guitar Town, evidence that Earle, perhaps at the direction of MCA, was leaning toward mainstream rock acceptance. The record reached the top 20 of Billboard's country chart while Guitar Town continued as a force in the top 50. Yet Earle's personal and professional lives were becoming increasingly chaotic. When a record company executive had suggested putting Earle's face on the cover of Exit 0 during dinner, Earle had tossed a steak at him. Executives also suggested a haircut, which Earle refused for four years. He began to use his new affluence and public platform to champion causes important to him, supporting American Indian rights, playing the Farm Aid benefit, and speaking out against the death penalty and the policies of Republican president Ronald Reagan; many of these positions were unpopular in the frequently right-wing world of country music.
By this time Earle's marriage to his third wife had ended; when girlfriend Lou-Anne Gill became pregnant, she became wife number four. Divorce papers were served three months later (though the couple would remarry in 1993). Earle next became involved with Teresa Ensenat, a talent scout affiliated with MCA's Geffen Records imprint. It was also at this time that he asked the label to transfer him out of its country division and into the pop and rock division, where Ensenat worked. MCA executives granted his request, and his new wife--who had helped launch rock powerhouse Guns 'N' Roses--became increasingly involved in his career.
In 1988 Earle released Copperhead Road, a full-fledged rock album. The cover bore a skull and crossbones insignia, and "the title cut, a broody tale of drug-running Vietnam vets, had a start-stop swagger closer to Led Zeppelin than [country great] Lefty Frizzell," noted Mark Blake in Country Music International. It also featured a song recorded with the Irish folk-punk band the Pogues. Copperhead Road received little promotional support from MCA, and album sales headed south. Poor sales, combined with company frustration over Earle's notoriously difficult behavior, effectively spelled his doom within the industry.
Earle's personal life began sliding even further downhill, and by the time The Hard Way was released in 1990, Earle was playing hockey rinks in Canada in between sojourns overseas for dates in British clubs. Newsweek referred to The Hard Way as "dark, scary, [and] inconsistent." It was dismissed by some as one of Earle's worst albums, though it turned up in Stereo Review's "best recordings of the month" in the fall of that year. Noted country music critic Nash praised its evocation of the seedier side of small-town America with its songs of go-nowhere teens, death-row injustice, and corrupt televangelists. She remarked, "Earle's songs of corruption, greed, outlaws, drink, and dope are so rooted in reality that they show up the kind of commercial country music that attempts to deal with the same subjects as the empty, smarmy dreck it is. It's no wonder that Earle's name is seldom spoken in Nashville anymore."
Earle's last record for MCA was Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator, a 1991 live release of new material. He was released from his contract with the label shortly thereafter. When his marriage to fifth wife Ensenat broke up in 1992, Earle's surrender to drug abuse--now including crack cocaine--and alcoholism became even more pronounced. "Earle sightings became a morbid sport in Nashville," reported Schone in Spin. "He began to hit up acquaintances for money as rumors began circulating about his guitars turning up in pawn shops." The once hefty performer became thinner and thinner and was arrested several times in the rougher areas of Nashville and charged with drug possession. Occasionally he played unannounced gigs at small clubs. MCA released a greatest hits package in 1993 called The Essential Steve Earle.
Clean, Sober, and Successful
A car accident in the spring of 1994 nearly finished what was left of Earle's physical presence, but it was not showing up for a court date that spelled the true end of his wayward ways. A judge sentenced the singer to nearly a year in prison. Earle managed to spend a month of that time cleaning up in a rehab center. He returned to prison for a few more months before being released on probation in November of 1994. From there, in what seemed like a million-to-one shot, Earle began to turn his life around. He was signed to a one-record deal with a small, independent label in Nashville called Winter Harvest. In January of 1995, Earle spent three days in a recording studio, leaving it with a new album of acoustic songs.
Train A Comin' appeared later in 1995 to critical accolades. The work was modeled after Emmylou Harris's Roses in the Snow, and Harris, one of Earle's heroes, guested on two of the tracks. One of Van Zandt's songs was also covered, as well as the Beatles' "I'm Looking Through You." Other material on the record had first been recorded as demos two decades before. By April of 1995 Train A Comin' was making a run at the alternative rock charts. Nashville, however, seemed loath to accept a record so out of step with the polished, often soulless sound then emanating from Music City--especially one from Earle, despite his turnaround. Newsweek's Schoemer described Train A Comin' as "a spare, beautifully tender acoustic effort recorded in loose back-porch jamboree fashion."
In 1996 Earle was back with a new album on a new record company--his own. I Feel Alright was the first release on E-Squared (partner Jack Emerson is the other E), a Nashville based production company/label to be marketed and distributed by Warner Bros. "Basically, we're a freestanding independent bringing things to Warner Brothers when it makes sense to go thorough them," Emerson told Billboard's Jim Bessman. Earle added that he wanted to be a Nasvhille label that does other things besides country music. A clear example of those words could be I Feel Alright. A departure from the acoustic bluegrass sound of Train, the release combined a driving acoustic sound with electric guitars that Entertainment Weekly's Alanna Nash says, "regulary crash into the mix like turbocharged chainsaws."
In 1997, Earle released El Corazon, a Spanish title which translates as "The Heart." The album contains Earle's characteristic commentary on the issues most pressing to him, namely politics, racism, and personal strife. Except for the track "Here I Am," El Corazon lacks the "personal manifesto" present on earlier albums, Earle is quoted in Billlboard. According to Scott Schinder of Entertainment Weekly, the album's insights "resonate with hard-won wisdom." The album also features guests including gospel group the Fairfield Four, Emmylou Harris, and bluegrass great Del McCoury.
Delved into Bluegrass with The Mountain
Earle collaborated with the Del McCoury Band on the 1999 bluegrass release The Mountain, called "the year's richest journey into roots music's living history," by Ann Powers in New York Times Upfront. The album was called "joyful and accomplished" and "able to embrace the major styles and subjects of country music while seeming always unified and integrated" by William Hogeland in the Atlantic Monthly. Hogeland also called the Del McCoury Band's playing "superb." "Each of the songs on The Mountain hold their own particular charm, and there isn't a loser in the bunch," commented All Music Guide critic Michael B. Smith.
Returning to a sound close to that of Copperhead Road, Earle released Transcendental Blues in 2000. Earle told Jim Bessman in Billboard that the album was "all over the place" and was "about change, and how much I've changed and how much I keep changing." In addition to guest accordionist Sharron Shannon, the album features a duet with his sister Stacey Earle and drum work by brother Patrick Earle. "Transcendental Blues walks the line between Steve Earle the country-rock rebel who gave the world Copperhead Road and Guitar Town and Steve Earle the traditionalist who opened a new chapter in bluegrass with his last release The Mountain," according to All Music Guide's Michael Cusanelli.
Continued Courting Controversy
In 2002, Earle released the controversial Jerusalem. Angered and puzzled by the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, he took a sympathetic look at "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh in the song "John Walker's Blues," even taking on Lindh's voice. With lyrics like "I'm just an American boy.... Now they're draggin' me back/With my head in a sack/To the land of the infidel," the song stirred what Brian Hiatt called "an Eminem-worthy fuss" in Entertainment Weekly. A Wall Street Journal editorial called the song a "schlocky echo of pop protest past designed to get Earle back on the charts," according to Billboard. Earle maintained that the album was "the most pro-American record I've ever made," as quoted in Billboard.
Earle issued a collection of eleven short stories called Doghouse Roses in 2001 and has appeared in a small part as a recovering addict on the HBO cable television series The Wire.
by Carol Brennan
Steve Earle's Career
Staff songwriter for country music label, Nashville, TN, late 1970s-early 1980s; released debut album, Pink and Black, on an independent label, c. 1982; signed with MCA Records, 1986, and released Guitar Town; signed with Winter Harvest Records, 1994; released Train A Comin', 1995; founded E-Squared Records with Jack Emerson, 1995; released I Feel Alright on E-Squared, 1996; released El Corazon, 1997; The Mountain, 1999; Transcendental Blues, 2000; and Jerusalem, 2002.
Steve Earle's Awards
Rolling Stone critics' poll, Best Country Music Artist, 1986; eight Grammy Award nominations.
- Selected discography
- Pink and Black , c. 1982.
- Guitar Town , MCA, 1986.
- Early Tracks , Epic, 1987.
- Exit 0 , MCA, 1987.
- Copperhead Road , MCA, 1988.
- The Hard Way , MCA, 1990.
- Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator , MCA, 1991.
- The Essential Steve Earle , MCA, 1993.
- Train A Comin' , Winter Harvest, 1995.
- (Contributor; with Marty Stuart) Not Fade Away: Remembering Buddy Holly , Decca, 1996.
- (Contributor) Dead Man Walking (soundtrack), Columbia, 1996.
- I Feel Alright , E-Squared/Warner Bros, 1996.
- El Corazon , E-Squared/Warner Bros., 1997.
- (With the Del McCoury Band) The Mountain , E-Squared, 1999.
- Transcendental Blues , E-Squared/Artemis, 2000.
- Jerusalem , E-Squared/Artemis, 2002.
- Selected writings
- Doghouse Roses , Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
February 13, 2005: Earle won the Grammy Award for best contemporary folk album for The Revolution Starts ... Now. Source: Grammys.com, www.grammys.com/awards/grammy/47winners, February 14, 2005.
- Clarke, Donald, editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989.
- Atlantic Monthly, October 1999.
- Billboard, January 6, 1996; September 6, 1997; June 10, 2000; August 10, 2002.
- Booklist, May 15, 2001.
- Country Music, March/April 1993; January/February, 1996.
- Country Music International, March 1995.
- Entertainment Weekly, March 8, 1996; October 17, 1997; August 9, 2002.
- Guitar Player, November 1993.
- Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, August 22, 2001.
- Newsweek, April 17, 1995.
- New York Times Upfront, February 14, 2000.
- People, August 10, 1987.
- Pulse!, November 1993.
- Spin, May 1995.
- Stereo Review, November 1986; October 1990.
- Time, September 8, 1986.
- USA Today, April 11, 1995.
- "Steve Earle," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 1, 2003).
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Winter Harvest Entertainment publicity materials, 1995.