Rebel With a New Cause

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

A small part in the Robert Altman film Nashville and a couple of publishing deals were all Earle had to show for his first extended stay in Tennessee. Frustrated, he moved back to Texas for a year and gigged with the Dukes. His subsequent return to Nashville brought more ups and downs. He wrote a Top 20 hit, "When You Fall in Love," for vocalist Johnny Lee, but his own EP, made for a small indie, died a quick death. In 1983 Earle was signed to Epic Records, which financed the recording of several more tracks. But aside from releasing one single, "Nothin' But You," the corporate hats left Earle dangling, then cut him loose. The firm eventually released the ditties generated under its auspices as Early Tracks, a platter that reached stores in 1987--a year after MCA Records put out the album that made Earle a star.

Guitar Town arrived at a time when C&W was mired in complacency and formula (sound familiar?). The so-called countrypolitan approach that spread through the genre like a virus following the success of the John Travolta vehicle Urban Cowboy had given rise to complaints even from true believers. But Earle's disc--like Dwight Yoakam's Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc., which also was issued in 1986--proved that there was life in the old style yet. Dispensing with the soupy strings, Vegas-y arrangements and generally cliched quality of typical Nashville fodder of the era, Earle built his material around a brawny, quasi-rockabilly guitar tone that sliced through radio dross like a scythe. While some of the material (such as "My Old Friend the Blues" and "Down the Road") hewed too close to standard country definitions, other compositions lit out into territory that was largely unexplored. Most notable in this regard was "Good Ol' Boy (Gettin' Tough)," a song inspired by President Ronald Reagan's decision to fire striking air-traffic controllers like Earle's father. "I was born in the land of plenty/Now there ain't enough," Earle yelps in his singularly scratchy voice, as rocky riffs crunch and a piano straight out of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band pounds in the background. Numbers like this one earned Earle comparisons to Springsteen and John Mellencamp, but in truth, his work was considerably more subversive. They were operating within a tradition that accepted such sentiments; Earle was butting up against one that viewed them with suspicion. That Guitar Town was a success despite these obstacles speaks volumes.

The Nashville establishment kept its distance from 1987's Exit 0 and, especially, 1988's Copperhead Road; for the latter, Earle's publicity was handled by his record company's pop division. Both long-players earned solid sales, but the suits at MCA were growing increasingly nervous about Earle's extracurricular activities, which included an arrest for allegedly assaulting a cop on New Year's Eve 1988 and a paternity suit. As a result, they put little promotional effort behind 1990's impressive The Hard Way, which was highlighted by Earle's first anti-death-penalty opus, "Billy Austin." A followup, the live disc Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator, seemed exactly like what it was--something intended to fulfill contractual obligations. After that, Earle was on his own.

The next three years were the worst. With little going on professionally (believe it or not, he actually auditioned to join the reformed Lynyrd Skynyrd), Earle turned himself into a human pincushion. Finally, in 1994, he pled guilty to a possession-of-heroin charge and was sentenced to one year in stir. He later was transferred to a rehab center when he became addicted to methadone. Nevertheless, he credits the intervention of the justice system for his eventual recovery.

"I got clean because I got locked up," he says. "Deciding that I wasn't going to kill myself for other people's entertainment may have been a motivator in staying clean in the beginning, but anymore, I don't think about that at all." Still, he confesses that the rebel status conferred by his prison experiences has its benefits. "My offices are right here on Music Row, and there's another studio here where they're doing pretty much business as usual--status quo, so-called Nashville country records. And I delight in being up in the middle of that doing what I'm doing. They're scared of me. There was a time that bothered me, but I must admit that I kind of dig it now." After a pause, he notes, "I guess because I can take some perverse pleasure in that, it means I'm not that well yet. Maybe one of these days I'll get better, and I won't feel that way anymore."

Even if he does reach such a state of peace, Earle doesn't expect Nashville types to give him the prodigal-son treatment. He's broken too many taboos--ones for which not even the greats have been forgiven. "It was never okay to do what I've done," he remarks. "They fired Hank Williams from the Opry, you know. You can be a hell-raiser as long as you don't raise hell with their money. That's what it boils down to. The industry's becoming more controlling than it's ever been. And these young artists, The Hats: They're really ambitious--they want to be stars at any cost, and they'll do what they're told. And that's what labels want. That's what they're cultivating now. This is Urban Cowboy II. Believe it.

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