Music News

Happy Birthday, Steve Earle!

There were those who branded themselves as outlaws way before -- Waylon, Willie, Johnny Cash, and David Allan Coe among them. But Steve Earle has lived that legend to the fullest.

Born January 17, 1955, Earle's notoriety has often threatened to overshadow his prodigious musical career, one that's made him one of the most respected singer/songwriters of the new country genre. From insurgent early albums like Guitar Town and Copperhead Road through the overt political commentary of Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts Now, Earle's never muzzled his outspoken beliefs or antagonistic attitude. 

Earle was even once considered a pariah among the more liberal-leaning members of the Americana community. Overall, he was just never a

candidate to get on any kind of likability list. He's been married

seven times, twice to the same woman. Meanwhile his son, Justin Townes Earle

-- a noted singer/songwriter in his own right -- has freely expressed the

fact that his father was rarely around and that the two had a strained


Still, to his credit, Earle apparently

learned from his early mistakes. He was a frequent substance abuser,

which led him to become a hardened heroin addict. He was forced to

sideline his career in 1992 when his drug habit rendered him unable to

continue his career. He was eventually convicted of drug and firearms

charges and spent two ignominious years confined to the penitentiary.

Fortunately he kicked his habit while in prison and emerged clean,

sober, and newly committed to his craft. His first album after his

incarceration, Train A Comin', won him a Grammy nod, the first of 14 nominations, three of which turned into wins. These days, he is

given the same high esteem accorded friends and contemporaries like Guy

Clark, the late Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, and Rodney Crowell, and

his work is revered for its astute observations and emotional


I had an opportunity to interview Earle on the 2010 Cayamo cruise, and he was as honest and unapologetic as his outlaw image might suggest. Only, he wasn't playing a role or trying to act the part. He was simply being himself.

Both he and Lyle Lovett were holding court as part of a conversation being taped for the radio program World Cafe, but other than the fact that both originally hail from Houston and abide by the same rootsy regimen, the differences between them couldn't have been more striking.

Lovett, with his trademark pile of curly hair towering neatly over his forehead, was dressed impeccably in a black leather sports coat and ever-present cowboy boots. Earle, on the other hand, looked like he just shuffled in off the street, dressed in shorts and flip-flops with his long stringy locks and overgrown beard doing little to conceal his balding scalp. The two reminisced about their early days in the music biz and the various venues they played in South Texas before each made a move to Nashville. 
"It's just music," Earle commented as the stories wound on. "I feel very fortunate to be able to make music at all." 

After the interview, Earle ambled over to the press room to further elaborate on his thoughts about life, politics, and his art. He spoke freely about the fact that he was once an addict and an inmate, but he insisted that now he's happy and content for the first time. Suddenly his cell phone rang and he scrambled to answer it. "Allison is due any moment," he remarked, referring to his then-pregnant wife and bandmate, Allison Moorer.

For a man with a onetime reputation as a rowdy hell-raiser, Earle struck me as a man who was decidedly down to earth. He brazenly asserted that he is a socialist who's out of sync with mainstream politics. "I have to refrain from publicly supporting any candidate because that would be their kiss of death," he admitted.

He also struck down his tough-guy image when he insisted that even though he had been in quite a few fights in his life, he had never won a single one. Reminded that people were once intimidated by him, he responded by saying that notion once hurt his feelings. "I'm OK with it now," he maintained. "I finally realized that if people have problems with me, that's something they have to deal with." 

Last February, I caught up to him on the Cayamo Cruise again, but this time it wasn't in the context of an interview. He and Allison were having lunch in one of the informal dining areas, and Earle was caring for his newborn son, John Henry Earle, who had been born eight months before. Observing him in the role of loving husband and nurturing dad provided all the evidence necessary that this former bad boy was reformed and rejuvenated after all.

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Lee Zimmerman