Rebel With a New Cause

Steve Earle has taken everything that's been thrown at him--and he's coming back for more.

So you thought that after coming through heroin addiction, imprisonment and virtual banishment from the country-music industry, Steve Earle would be suitably apologetic and recalcitrant? Think again. As Earle puts it, "There are some people in this world that I really quite frankly don't give a fuck what they think."

Likewise, there are folks about whom Earle cares a great deal: his wife Lou Ann (his sixth spouse, she was also his fourth), his sons Justin and Ian, and those fans who've stuck with him through times as ugly as a nude photo session with Norman Fell. "Those people that have bought my records since the beginning, they feed my kids," he says. "So they're definitely people I take into consideration. I try to play the stuff I think they want to hear. But I also have to play the stuff that I have fun playing. And I'm having more fun going out and playing than I've had for a long, long time--mainly because I don't have to wake up in the morning sick and deal with that. So it's better from square one--and I think it shows."

This comment isn't hyperbole; Earle doesn't have time for that. He recently released I Feel Alright, his first album on a major label (Warner Bros., in association with his own E-Squared subsidiary) since 1991, and while it may not be his best album, it's close enough to warrant serious debate. Moreover, he has returned to concert stages with a vengeance. The modest acoustic lineup that he took to several cities last year won deserved raves for the fast-fingered interplay of Earle and accompanists Norman Blake and Peter Rowan (who'll also be supporting him at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival). But his roadwork with his regular touring ensemble, the Dukes, has been even more astounding. During his appearance at the Bluebird Theater earlier this year, for example, Earle provided a rapt audience with a virtual primer on essential American music, offering up country, blues, folk and full-bore rock and roll that was excitingly varied yet clearly the product of a single passionate intellect. He was as opinionated as ever--he introduced a song he wrote for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack with a fierce attack on the death penalty--but he also proved just as capable of ribald humor and big-heartedness. Though he cut a much heftier figure than he did a decade ago, there was a certain lightness about him, a buoyancy that's been absent for too long. Earle has reached the stage in his development where categories mean absolutely nothing, and the results of his efforts are a wonder to behold.

What's perhaps most surprising about Earle, however, is that he's still drawing breath. Over the years he's abused his person more thoroughly than any Nashville-based performer since Hank Williams Sr. But whereas Williams was fitted for a pine overcoat long before the gods would have claimed a more clean-living man, Earle shows every sign of surviving his grand recklessness. He's been free of narcotics for nearly two years now--long enough to be feel a justifiable pride in his accomplishment, but not so long that he can shrug off the doubters waiting for him to fall off the wagon again. "In Rolling Stone, they put in print that I 'claimed' to be clean," he fumes. "It's like they won't commit themselves to believing it. And that hurts your feelings when you've got twenty months clean. And it wasn't easy to do, believe me. But you just have to blow it off.

"Of course, people are going to do that. They're going to watch you to see if you fuck up. And I put myself in that position to a certain extent, and I probably fed off it for a period of time, when things were going better. But the way I look at all that is that when things were going really bad, anything anybody wrote was speculation, because nobody really saw me. Nobody white saw me, anyway. And no matter how bad people thought it was, the truth's worse. And nobody knows but me."

For the rest of us, what's left is a narrative so classic in its outlines that it needs no embroidering. Earle was born in Virginia in January 1955 but was raised in San Antonio, Texas, a town whose rough reputation young Steve did his damnedest to enhance. He maintains that he decided on his future occupation at age three, after seeing Elvis Presley on television. In the years that followed, he grew his hair long--even though he was regularly pummeled by neighborhood toughs for this fashion statement--and became well-acquainted with the juvenile authorities. Between run-ins with the law, he found time to play the guitar. He'd all but mastered the instrument by thirteen--the same age he says he tried heroin for the first time.

Three years later Earle was performing regularly in Texas dives and hanging out with musical outlaws such as Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark. To put it mildly, these older ruffians did not prove to be moderating influences. Earle went through so much wine that Ernest and Julio Gallo owed him a thank-you note, and he simultaneously developed a significant jones for cocaine--a stimulant for most, but something that tended to slow down the fast-living young singer.

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