Rebel With a New Cause

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

"When I first came to this town 21 years ago, nobody would have recognized me without a cowboy hat. I'm from San Antonio, Texas, man. But you won't catch me in one now. I have a whole closet full of cowboy boots, too. The first pair of hard shoes I ever had were cowboy boots. But I've got moccasins on right now, and they're pretty comfortable."

With that attitude, it's appropriate that Earle doesn't even consider himself part of the country scene anymore. "I want to just sort of make the next Steve Earle record," he declares.

The first such disc that appeared after he completed detox was 1995's Train a Comin', a one-off for the small Winter Harvest concern. Featuring Blake, Rowan, bassist Roy Huskey and the harmony vocals of Emmylou Harris, the album, which juxtaposes new and old Earle tunes with left-fielders such as the Beatles cover "I'm Looking Through You," has the feeling of rebirth about it. In many ways, it's offhand and shaggy, but throughout it, Earle sounds as if he's rediscovering the joy of singing and playing good songs. By contrast, I Feel Alright comes across as the real comeback--a collection that tosses out one great song after another. It kicks off with the title cut, a vivid up-yours directed at anyone who expected him to put his tail between his legs. "Now some of you would live through me/Lock me up and throw away the key," he hollers at the outset, before announcing, "Be careful what you wish for, friend/Because I've been to hell and now I'm back again."

Earle gladly confirms that Alright's title is intended to answer the query posed to him most often these days. Too bad it's not the only banality to which he's expected to respond. "'What was jail like?' I get a lot," he attests. "Which is a stupid question--jail sucks. But the questions I'm really sick of mostly have to do with drugs or divorces or marriages. I wish they'd quit trying to psychoanalyze me through my songs and stuff that's basically tabloid fodder, when you get right down to it. Anybody hates to have their life reduced to that."

The best way to defuse this obsession, Earle feels, is to make good music and to do his best to ensure that it's heard. As such, he's pleased with the manner in which the nation's Adult Album Alternative stations have embraced his latest work. But when it's mentioned that Alright is seldom being spun in the Denver-Boulder area, seen by many observers as the birthplace of the Triple-A format, he comes uncorked.

"That radio station there [KBCO-FM] isn't really a Triple-A station," he asserts. "They want to be a modern-rock station, because that's where the money is. They're a fucking radio station, and a fucking radio station is a fucking radio station. And there ain't no radio station in Colorado that invented anything having to do with Triple-A. They're selling widgets like everybody else is. They're selling cigarettes and beer and whatever the fuck else they advertise. And that's all they're doing."

Such outbursts won't win Earle much airplay even if they're true. But at this stage in his life, he's not going to walk on tiptoes to please anyone. With Alright, he's back in charge from a musical standpoint, and his E-Squared imprint is giving him the opportunity to foster the careers of other performers who are similarly allergic to compromise. "There are country artists out there who I think are very for-real and should be on country radio," he says. "You may see this label at some point in the future make an assault on country radio to prove that. But if I decide to tilt at that windmill again, it'll probably be as a producer and a partner in this company and not as an artist.

"I'm really happy with what my records have evolved into," he concludes. "They're songwriter records. They're not about country or about rock. They're just my records. If country radio plays them, great, but if not, that's okay. I'm an established artist, and I have enough of an audience that my records are profitable. I've never had a record that's sold less than 100,000 copies, so people are going to want to keep putting out records by me. But now I'm putting them out myself. And doing it feels good. Very good."

Telluride Bluegrass Festival, with Steve Earle, the Zion Harmonizers, Claire Lynch & the Front Porch String Band, the Osborne Brothers, the Nields, Alison Krauss & Union Station, David Grisman, Vassar Clements, Herb Pederson, Peter Rowan and Roy Huskey. Sunday, June 23, Telluride. Call 800-624-2422 for more details.

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