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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.

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.

"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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