Hardcore Troubadour: The Life And Near Death Of Steve Earle
It’s a good thing that Steve Earle likes to talk, because it seems like he’s always got a lot of explaining to do.
Earle once turned up late for a concert in Atlanta, forcing headliner Rosanne Cash to go on before him — not a big deal in and of itself. But the reason he was late was that he’d been arrested earlier that day in Norfolk, Virginia, when an airport security guard discovered a Colt .45 automatic in his carry-on bag.
Earle wouldn’t have even been at the airport that day had he not gotten off of his tour bus in order to spend the night in a hotel with a woman that was not his current wife (at least not yet, anyway).
“You don’t have to create drama in your life,” Cash told him. “You embody it.”
In this rip-roaring biography of the iconoclastic country rocker, there’s anarchy aplenty — Earle has been nothing if not larger-than-life in terms of drinking, drugging, marrying early and often, and leaving plenty of wreckage in his wake. It’s about what you’d expect from a guy who, when he first met Townes Van Zandt, watched the reckless singer-songwriter gamble away all his money plus a beautiful buckskin jacket he’d been given as a gift. “My hero!” Earle enthused.
Earle is the son of an air traffic controller, and his family moved constantly, giving him a pronounced restlessness. He was a voracious reader but a poor student and, frustrated by school, he dropped out. “We always just assumed when he was younger that he was a genius,” his sister Kelly says.
His uncle Nick came to live with the family and introduced Earle to music, but also to hard drugs. Earle shot heroin for the first time when he was in eighth grade.
He began playing music and soon ran away from home, hitchhiking to gigs in Austin, San Antonio and Houston, eventually opening shows for Van Zandt. Earle married for the first time at age 19 and soon took off for Nashville, where he fell in with a renegade group of mid-’70s songwriters hanging out at the home of Guy Clark (for whom he spent a stretch playing bass).
He got a publishing deal, but no one wanted to sing his songs, which were labeled as “too country.” (Elvis almost cut one, but canceled the session at the last minute.) In the early ’80s, he finally recorded them himself, positioning himself as a rockabilly artist.
Earle scored a deal with Columbia Records that quickly went sour. He was picked up by MCA Nashville on the strength of producer/label exec Tony Brown’s belief in him, although MCA’s president, Jimmy Bowen, had no use for him whatsoever. Earle’s albums for the label in the mid-late ’80s — the masterful debut Guitar Town, followed by Exit 0 and Copperhead Road — were critical smashes, and the first was a considerable commercial success as well (hitting #1 on the country charts). But his music gradually grew too extreme for country radio; by Copperhead Road, he’d been shuttled to the label’s Uni imprint and was being worked out of New York instead of Nashville.
Earle’s personal life was often in shambles. He eventually married and divorced six times (twice to the same woman), and fathered children he would seldom see. Drugs and mayhem became such constant companions that his answering machine’s outgoing message said, “This is Steve. I’m probably out shooting heroin, chasing thirteen-year-old girls and beatin’ up cops. But I’m old and I tire easily so leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”
Hardcore Troubadour is especially effective in reporting on Earle’s misadventures in his down-and-out days. At one point, author Lauren St. John writes that Earle’s drug habit was costing him (at least) $200 a day for heroin and $400 a day for cocaine. He even visited Elvis’ notorious prescription-writing croaker, Dr. Nick, to score prescription painkillers.
For two and a half years, Earle lived in a netherworld of drugs, writing no new music, betraying his friendships, and turning into a hollowed-out shell of his former self. Things got so bad that, in the book’s most startling revelation, Earle’s sister Stacey confesses she once contemplated putting a pillow over his face and suffocating him just to end his suffering.
As is well-known, it took a jail sentence to clean him up once and for all. When he was released, Earle chose the hard road of staying clean and sober. His gift for music returned, and he re-established himself with his mid-’90s albums Train A-Comin’ and I Feel Alright. He remained as outspoken as ever, calling country pop star Shania Twain “the highest-paid lap dancer in Nashville” and saying Garth Brooks was “kind of evil.”
Earle’s political activism increased as well. He became a passionate opponent of the death penalty (a cause that St. John traces to his seeing the film In Cold Blood when he was a boy). He also courted controversy with politically minded songs such as “Christmastime In Washington” and, most recently, “John Walker’s Blues”. Of the latter tune, written about “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, Earle suggested, “This will be the song that gets me kicked out of the country.”
There are quite a few Britishisms to dance around (the author, and the publisher, are based in England), and perhaps not quite enough discussion of the artist’s music. Earle is often so over-the-top that, if he were a fictional character, he’d scarcely be believable. But St. John didn’t have to make him up, and her well-researched and finely crafted work is unflinching in telling the singer’s often unpleasant tale.