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In the liner notes to his new bluegrass album, Steve Earle concedes that his primary motive for engaging in the project in the first place was to achieve immortality.
An "ambitious and selfish" desire to be sure, but as Earle puts it, "I wanted to write just one song that would be performed by at least one band at every bluegrass festival in the world" long after he follows the genre's founder and spiritual father, Bill Monroe, to that home on high.
Musical immortality was the last thing on Earle's mind just a few years ago. After spearheading country music's "New Traditionalist" movement in the mid '80s with the critical and commercial success of his debut album Guitar Town, Earle fell headlong into a personal and professional tailspin, which at various points would find him as a junkie, a convict, and a pariah within Nashville's image-conscious music community.
Earle hasn't exactly mellowed in recent years, but he does seem to have found a crucial degree of stability after hitting the depths in 1994. Contrary to the cliche that misery is creativity's best fuel, Earle's personal rebound might have actually saved his art.
"I think I'm writing the best stuff I've written," Earle says. "I'm certainly writing a lot more. In the months of October and November alone, I wrote 19,000 words of prose, five poems and four songs. I've never had a point in my life where I've written that much."
Born in Virginia, Earle grew up in Texas, in a small town north of San Antonio. By 16, he left home to become a musician. Settling with a relative in Houston, he came under the sway of a number of Texas troubadours whom he considered idols, most notably the late, great Townes Van Zandt. After spending a few years on the Texas coffee-house circuit, Earle made the inevitable jump to Nashville to become a star. But success didn't come easily for a performer as raw and unvarnished as Earle. In the '70s, Nashville was squarely in the throes of the Countrypolitan and Urban Cowboy eras.
Apprenticing with Texas compatriot Guy Clark, Earle earned a publishing deal and became a staff writer. Although he had a couple of songs recorded (and another nearly cut by Elvis), times continued to be tough for Earle. Eight years after his arrival in Music City he finally recorded an independently released album of rockabilly tunes that went nowhere. A deal with Epic records was a bigger fiasco, as the label shelved a finished album and a two-year relationship with the headstrong singer in 1985.
But by 1986, Nashville was ready for a change. Country music was experiencing a commercial and creative slump as it struggled to overcome the residue that the insipid Urban Cowboy era had left behind. Earle scored a deal with MCA, and, along with Dwight Yoakam, established himself as a leader of a new movement back to the music's unvarnished roots.
The success of Guitar Town (which went to number one, spawned a pair of top-10 singles, and earned a Grammy nomination) came to the surprise and chagrin of many in the Nashville community who considered Earle something of a heretic for his appearance, his attitude and his already notorious personal habits. When his 1987 follow-up, Exit 0, failed to reach the commercial heights of its predecessor, many in Nashville were eager to turn their backs on Earle. Before they had the chance, Earle turned his back on them.
Moving to MCA's pop offices in Los Angeles, Earle's 1988 album Copperhead Road was written and marketed with the intention of bringing him stardom as a rock act. As his addiction to heroin worsened, Earle began to imagine himself as a kind of hillbilly Keith Richards. Romanticizing his habits in song and mythologizing himself in the process, Earle was treading a dangerous path. His subsequent releases, 1990's The Hard Way and 1991's Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator were documents of an artist struggling to determine his musical allegiance--but worse, the effects of his drug habit and excessive lifestyle seemed to be invading his work.
With his drug addiction intensifying and his weight and health dropping to critical levels by the early '90s, MCA unceremoniously dropped him. It seemed that if Earle would be remembered for anything, it would be for the tragic circumstances under which he died rather than the music he made while he was living. But fate and the law stepped in. In late 1994, after a series of drug-related arrests, he was sentenced to a jail term. Transferring between prison and drug treatment, Earle emerged a few months after his release, clean and ready to reclaim his reputation as an artist.
His self-described "vacation in the ghetto" had not robbed him of his talents as a writer or a singer, and Earle set out to make up for lost time with his all-acoustic "comeback" album Train A Comin'. It would be the turning point in his career. Combining some of his long-neglected originals and a number of personally significant cover choices, Train was recorded with a crack band of acoustic players including Peter Rowan, Norman Blake and Roy Huskey Jr.--and the vocals of Emmylou Harris. The record was the most honest and personal of his career.