Born Stephen Fain Earle in Fort Monro, Virginia, 1955, young Steve was already an accomplished guitarist at age 13. His departure to Nashville followed the classic course: seek out the publisher guys, pitch some songs, play some sessions. He made his name doing all three, and developed his own blend of folk-rock protest and rockabilly attitude in the tough clubs surrounding Music Row – places not always known for their liberal views.
Now here comes this wild-eyed, long-haired maverick digging into the establishment: in such cases you either sink or swim. Fortunately, Steve is good in the water.
His earliest efforts were compiled on Early Tracks, including a solid cover of Dennis Linde’s ‘What’ll You Do About Me’ and John Hiatt’s ‘The Crush’. The collection was released to capitalise on the success of his studio debut proper, the remarkable Guitar Town. This 1986 gem, co-produced by Emory Gordy, Jr, Tony Brown and Richard Bennett, ripped up the rulebook and made Earle one of MCA’s hottest new alt.country properties, ideally placed for media attention, being a witty and voluble interviewee. Guitar Town was a natural success, scoring Earle a No.1 Billboard Country slot. Performed with a crack band including Gordy, Bennett and pedal steel virtuoso Bucky Baxter (later the go-to touring musician for Bob Dylan), the songs oozed the right stuff, with the title cut and ‘Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left’ cementing an immediate reputation for country poesy. The 2016 vinyl reissue is worth discovering, thanks to a souped-up sound.
The equally rambunctious Exit 0 maintained a high standard, with ‘Nowhere Road’ and ‘Sweet Little ’66’ honed by months of solid touring. Word of mouth aside, Earle broke through with Copperhead Road, the album that really introduced him to a growing European audience. With reviewers comparing him to Bruce Springsteen, Randy Newman and Waylon Jennings, all the ingredients fell into place, not least the title track, which is a grand storytelling narrative about a moonshiner who changes his output to grow something more fragrant. The best way to discover this disc is to invest in the 2008 deluxe edition, which contains the parent album and a live collection that features guests The Pogues, Telluride and a wraparound selection of choice material such as the Stones’ ‘Dead Flowers’, The Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Wheels’ and a spot-on visit to Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’.
Earle’s fourth and final studio album for MCA was The Hard Way, after which he took a lengthy sabbatical to deal with a few personal issues. Even so, it was a grand way to draw one chapter to a close. Including a couple of collaborations with Maria McKee, The Hard Way is packed with doomed romanticism and hardcore country rock-blues, exemplified by ‘This Highway’s Mine (Roadmaster)’, a trucking lament for all ages.
Rejuvenated after his hiatus, Steve returned with a slew of well-received Warner Bros albums, including Train A Comin’, I Feel Alright and the ambitious El Corazón. The latter was well received by the LA Times’ Natalie Nichols, who noted, “Earle crafts these spare songs from a palette of folk, country, blues and rock. The music is unified by a pervasive melancholy that not even the gritty ‘NYC’, featuring Seattle punks Supersuckers, fully escapes.” Emmylou Harris appears on the epic and tragic racism song ‘Taneytown’, while The Fairfield Four light up ‘Telephone Road’.
Earle’s output from the 00s onwards includes the important Jerusalem (2002) and The Revolution Starts Now (both featuring Harris): country for new discovery; the Grammy-winning Washington Square Serenade (recorded after Steve moved to New York City) features Allison Moorer. Of course, seek out Townes: if you love Van Zandt half as much as Earle does you’ll get to hear an eclectic mix of his material, from ‘Pancho & Lefty’ to ‘Loretta’ and ‘(Quicksilver Daydreams Of) Maria’.
Earle’s novel, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, also inspired an album of the same name, released in 2011. The Low Highway and acclaimed Terraplane (which achieved high chart positions in Folk, Blues and Country lists) bring him up to date.
There are also collections in the shape of The Essential Steve Earle, Ain’t Ever Satisfied: The Steve Earle Collection and the 12-track digest, 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: The Best Of Steve Earle. The 2006 album, Live At Montreux 2005, is a charismatic solo triumph that’s deep catalogue and probably best approached after immersion in the early albums. Whatever comes next, rest assured, if it has Steve Earle’s name on the cover it’ll be worth listening to over and over again.
Words: Max Bell
Steve Earle and Nashville had had just about enough of one another once it came time for him to cut his third album in 1988. Earle's first two albums, Guitar Town and Exit 0, had sold well and earned enthusiastic reviews, but his stubborn refusal to make nice, his desire to make more rock-influenced albums, and the faint but clear Leftism in his populist lyrical stance made him no friends at MCA's Nashville offices, and his growing dependence on heroin didn't help matters one bit. Earle was moved to MCA's Los Angeles-based Uni imprint, and he headed to Memphis to cut his third album, Copperhead Road. The result improbably became one of Earle's strongest albums; between its big drum sound, arena-sized guitars, and a swagger that owed more to the Rolling Stones and Guns N' Roses than country's New Traditionalists, Copperhead Road was the unabashed rock & roll album Earle had long threatened to make, but his attitude and personality were strong enough to handle the oversized production, and the songs showed that for all the aural firepower, this was still the same down-home troublemaker from Earle's first two albums. The moonshiner's tale of the title cut, the gunfighter's saga of "The Devil's Right Hand," and the story of two generations of soldiers in "Johnny Come Lately" (with the Pogues sitting in as Earle's backing band) were all tough but compelling narratives rooted in country tradition, and their rock moves updated them without robbing them of their power. And if the songs about love that dominate the album's second half don't have the same immediate impact, "Even When I'm Blue," "You Belong to Me," and "Once You Love" are honest and absorbing reflections of the heart of this dysfunctional romantic. Copperhead Road's production, which occasionally borders on hair metal territory, dates it, but the fire of Earle's performances and the strength of the songs more than compensates, and this album still connects 20 years on: if he had been able to hold himself together and make a few more records this strong, it's hard to imagine how big a star he could have become.
Words: Mark Deming
On Steve Earle's first major American tour following the release of his debut album, Guitar Town, Earle found himself sharing a bill with Dwight Yoakam one night and the Replacements another, and one listen to the album explains why -- while the music was country through and through, Earle showed off enough swagger and attitude to intimidate anyone short of Keith Richards. While Earle's songs bore a certain resemblance to the Texas outlaw ethos (think Waylon Jennings in "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean" mode), they displayed a literate anger and street-smart snarl that set him apart from the typical Music Row hack, and no one in Nashville in 1986 was able (or willing) to write anything like the title song, a hilarious and harrowing tale of life on the road ("Well, I gotta keep rockin' while I still can/Got a two-pack habit and motel tan") or the bitterly unsentimental account of small-town life "Someday" ("You go to school, where you learn to read and write/So you can walk into the county bank and sign away your life"), the latter of which may be the best Bruce Springsteen song the Boss didn't write. And even when Earle gets a bit teary-eyed on "My Old Friend the Blues" and "Little Rock 'n' Roller," he showed off a battle-scarred heart that was tougher and harder-edged than most of his competition. Guitar Town is slightly flawed by an overly tidy production from Emory Gordy, Jr., and Tony Brown as well as a band that never hit quite as hard as Earle's voice, and he would make many stronger and more ambitious records in the future, but Guitar Town was his first shot at showing a major audience what he could do, and he hit a bull's-eye -- it's perhaps the strongest and most confident debut album any country act released in the 1980s.
Words: Mark Deming
Steve Earle once told a reporter that after listening to the final mix of 1987's Exit 0, he and his band hopped on their tour bus and played yet another gig that night, which is what they'd been doing during most of their time off from recording sessions. Exit 0 was recorded with Earle's road band, the Dukes, instead of the usual team of Nashville session pros, and as a consequence it boasts a leaner, tougher sound than his debut, Guitar Town, though the slightly slick cookie-cutter production by Tony Brown, Emory Gordy, Jr., and Richard Bennett saps a bit of the music's power. The album features a few great songs, including "I Ain't Never Satisfied" (which could practically be Earle's theme song), "The Week of Living Dangerously," "The Rain Came Down," and "Sweet Little '66," but there's a faint hint of sophomore slump to Exit 0 -- "No. 29" is far too sentimental for its own good, the Doug Sahm homage "San Antonio Girl" isn't nearly as good as the songs that clearly inspired it, and "Angry Young Man" feels like filler, something in short supply on most Steve Earle albums. Exit 0 is just uneven enough to qualify as a genuine disappointment, though that's within the context of Earle's body of work; this is still livelier stuff than nearly anyone in Nashville was cranking out at the time (short of Dwight Yoakam) and the high points confirm the guy who wrote "Guitar Town" had more fine tunes where that came from.
Words: Mark Deming
On The Mountain, Steve Earle has teamed up with one of the very finest bluegrass ensembles around, the Del McCoury Band. All 14 of the songs here were written by Earle, who confesses in the liner notes that his dream is to create a timeless bluegrass classic that will live on like Bill Monroe's "Uncle Pen." Well, he might very well have attained his dream. Each of the songs on The Mountain holds its own particular charm, and there isn't a loser in the bunch. "Carrie Brown" could have come from the very pen of "the father of bluegrass" himself, Monroe, and "Connemara Breakdown" has plenty enough fury to carve its own niche in the bluegrass tree. Outstanding performances from talented artists abound: there are the vocals of Emmylou Harris and Iris DeMent, the Dobro of Jerry Douglas and Gene Wooten, some smoking Sam Bush mandolin, and the fiddle fire of Stuart Duncan, all wrapped around these instant classics and played straight from the heart. Marty Stuart, Gillian Welch, and John Hartford all drop in to embellish the sound as well. Anyone who saw Earle perform with the McCoury Band was anxiously awaiting a CD, and with The Mountain, the wait is over. The smooth strains of "Pilgrim," with its unparalleled roster of guest artists, fills the room, and everything in the world seems just a little bit happier. Steve Earle has truly gone to the mountain and had his vision quest answered in the unmistakable tones of a Dobro, a banjo, and a guitar. Some good ol' American music, right from the peak of the mountain.
Words: Michael B. Smith
Over the past 27 years Steve Earle's music has journeyed all across the Americana spectrum: country, rock, folk, Beatlesque psychedelia, topical folk songs, etc. He's even done a covers record of Townes Van Zandt songs to pay tribute to his late mentor and friend. His very best offerings are those he's recorded with his Twang Trust production partner, Ray Kennedy. They're together here. Over 12 songs, Earle does what he does best: he tells stories that get under the skin and into the bones. Backed by the Dukes (& Duchesses), his road band, the title track's first-person vignette captures the strangeness and contradiction of America from a small vantage point, a first-person narrative about traveling. His world-weary voice brings the listener into the meld of fiddle, strummed acoustic guitars, and whining pedal steel and keeps her there, seeing it all through his eyes. "Calico County" is a straight-up rocker with whomping electric guitars, Fender Rhodes, bass, and drums. "Burnin' It Down" is the other side of the roaming romantic of "I Ain't Ever Satisfied," defeated, angry, bewildered about what happened to those dreams and his town. Allison Moorer's accordion lends a poignant undercurrent to the guitars. "After Mardi Gras," written for Lucia Micarelli's character in the HBO series Treme, is delivered with a gentle swing, and a tender violin solo by Eleanor Whitmore. This contrasts with the barroom boogie of "Pocket Full of Rain," driven by Moorer's piano, fiddle, and a strolling upright bassline by Kelly Looney. "Down the Road, Pt. 2" is a roiling trucker country number, infused with the spirit of Bill Monroe thanks to Earle's mandolin. The closer, "Remember Me," a slow, 4/4 Americana number, is a plea from a father to his child; it's one of the most moving, poetic songs in Earle's catalog. The singer is accompanied only by his acoustic guitar in the first half, before Will Rigby's loose-tuned snare and bass drum, accompanied by upright bass, mandolin, and pedal steel, enter. The song is a testament of familial faith, an offering of unwavering love with a lone request: that the protagonist not be forgotten no matter life's turns. The Low Highway is Earle the storyteller without any agenda save for getting the songs right, telling stories, and recording songs that will resonate as deeply live as they do here. This may be his most consistent offering since El Corazón.
Words: Thom Jurek
In his brief liner sketch on this album of Townes Van Zandt covers, songwriter Steve Earle writes: "I always read everything Townes told me to read. All of us did; we who followed him around, or simply bided our time in places along his migratory path, for we were indeed a cult, in the strictest sense of the word, with Townes at its ever shifting center." While what it was he read isn't worth spoiling here, it's the last part of that long sentence that really matters. Van Zandt inspired a cult, and an even bigger list of pale imitators. Earle may lionize the man and the artist (hence the tribute record), and may have even begun as an imitator, but he became something else entirely -- an iconoclastic (and iconic) artist and producer in his own right who can interpret these songs as such.
Van Zandt may have indeed been Earle's "schoolmaster," but it's Earle who does Van Zandt's artistic legend justice in these 15 diverse, yet stripped down performances of his songs. Many of the choices are obvious: "Pancho and Lefty," "To Live Is to Fly," "White Freightliner Blues," "Delta Momma Blues,"and "Don't Take It Too Bad" among them. Some would be less so, save for an artist of Earle's particular vision and world bent: "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold," "Rake," "Marie," "Colorado Girl," and "(Quicksilver Daydreams Of) Maria." That said, none of these arrangements are predictable, and yet all of them work. Earle's approach is very basic with some interesting twists and turns. Acoustic guitars, upright basses, mandolin, Dobro, banjo, fiddle, and mandola sit alongside electric guitars (thanks to Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello) and basses, harmonium, and effects. The distorted blues harp and hand percussion on "Where I Lead Me," is an excellent touch, but the megaphone vocals, ambient and feedback noise, and drum loops and electric guitar crunch on "Lungs" make it sound more like Black 47 covering Van Zandt. The reverb and loops on "Loretta" juxtapose beautifully against the acoustic guitars and the fiddle. The version of "Marie" is less harrowing than its author's; it feels more third-person narrative than first-person horror story -- thank goodness. "White Freightliner Blues" captures the free-in-the-wind bluegrass nature Van Zandt intended, perhaps more so than his own world-weary delivery, thanks in large part to Tim O'Brien's mandolin, Darrell Scott's banjo, and Shad Cobb's fiddle. Earle would have had a hard time blowing this record.
Certainly, he's closer than most to the material as he was to the man, but more than that he's a great songwriter and an avid folk music enthusiast. He understands lineages and the way the tales get told matter in order for them to live on. That's the easy part; the more mercurial thing is how well he succeeded. Earle made Townes' songs seem like an extension of his own last album, 2007's Washington Square Serenade. The same anything-goes-attitude, the adherence to all kinds of folk music, whether it's from across oceans, terrains, or alleyways, whether its roots are rural or urban, permeates this recording, making it an Earle record most of all; and that is about as fitting a tribute as there is to Van Zandt.
Words: Thom Jurek
"Hell, everybody's sick of all my f---ing happy songs anyway," Steve Earle declares in the liner notes to his 2015 album Terraplane as he explains why he chose to cut a blues album. If you feel like you somehow missed Earle's Pollyanna period, you're not the only one, but if he was motivated to turn to the blues because of personal troubles -- he was going through his seventh divorce while he wrote and recorded these songs -- it sure sounds like he chose the right kind of musical therapy. Terraplane is the most relaxed and least fussed-over album Earle has made in quite some time, and frankly, he sounds like he's having a ball on these sessions; with rare exceptions, this isn't music that ponders the dark night of the soul, but semi-acoustic roadhouse boogie that rocks with a steady roll and gives Earle a chance to crow like a rooster as he ponders broken hearts, long lonesome highways, battles with the forces of destiny, and the enduring appeal of women in go-go boots. Terraplane is just introspective enough to suit the literacy of Earle's lyrical conceits (a wordiness that nearly gets away from him on the grand-scale shaggy dog tale of "The Tennessee Kid"), and he does take the opportunity to bare his soul on "Better Off Alone," but the interplay between Earle and the umpteenth edition of the Dukes (including longtime sidemen Kelly Looney on bass and Will Rigby on drums, as well as fiddler and vocalist Eleanor Whitmore and guitarist Chris Masterson) is downright playful when the tempo picks up a bit, and the good and greasy feel of "The Usual Time," "Ain't Nobody's Daddy Now," and "King of the Blues" is as satisfying as a big slab of smoked brisket. Maybe folks were tired of Earle's happy songs, but if you want to hear the man have a good time while kicking up a fuss in the studio, Terraplane is a ride well worth taking.
Words: Mark Deming
New York City has long been more than America's biggest and most fabled city -- it's a place that symbolizes fresh starts and new opportunities, and there are scores of songs and stories about folks pulling up roots and heading to the Big Apple in search of a better and more exciting life. Steve Earle wrote one such song on his 1997 album El Corazón, "NYC," in which a nervy kid from Tennessee hitchhikes to Manhattan because "there must be something happening, it's just too big a town," and a decade later Earle followed him, moving to New York to escape Red State malaise. Washington Square Serenade, Earle's 12th studio album and first in three years, deals in part with the sights and sounds of his new hometown, from the red-tailed hawk that lives in Central Park ("Down Here Below") to the multilingual chatter of the streets ("City of Immigrants"), while also taking a look back at the home he left behind on tunes like "Oxycontin Blues," "Red Is the Color," and "Jericho Road." While there's a strength in the familiar textures of the songs where Earle remembers Tennessee, there's a welcome sense of rejuvenation in the album's first half as he shares the details of his adventures in New York (which also includes a new bride, Allison Moorer, who lends lovely backing vocals to these sessions and is the presumable inspiration for "Sparkle and Shine" and "Days Aren't Long Enough"), and the expressionistic imagery of "Down Here Below" and "Satellite Radio" works beautifully in this context. After producing his last few album himself, Earle turned those chores over to Dust Brother John King for Washington Square Serenade, and King brings a welcome collision of the traditional and the contemporary to the music, facing scratchy drum loops against mandolins and dobros while letting a folky simplicity carry the day when it best suits the song, and the sound is crisp and forceful throughout. Washington Square Serenade ultimately sounds a bit less focused than its immediate predecessors, the politically minded Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts...Now (despite the presence of "Red Is the Color" and "Steve's Hammer"), but it also finds Earle trying out some new tricks both as a performer and a songwriter, and it's exciting and encouraging to hear him exploring fresh turf after two decades of record-making, and there's lots of fine music to be had on this set.
Words: Mark Deming
To say Steve Earle had career problems in 1994 when he recorded Train a Comin' is something more than an understatement. Earle's life went into a dramatic tailspin thanks to a voracious drug habit after he parted ways with MCA in 1991, and he ended up spending a few months in jail on drug and weapons charges in 1993. Earle thankfully got treatment for his addictions while behind bars, and was clean and sober for the first time in many years when he scored a deal with a tiny independent label, Winter Harvest Records, and cut an acoustic album called Train a Comin'. Considering how low Earle had sunk, it was a pleasant shock that Train a Comin' was not only good, it was one of the strongest albums of his career to date. Dominated by songs he's written years before along with a few new tunes and some well-chosen covers, Train a Comin' featured Earle with a small group of gifted acoustic pickers, including Norman Blake, Peter Rowan, and Roy Huskey, Jr., and the tone of these sessions is at once relaxed and committed, sounding like a back porch guitar pull with a seriously talented guy handling the lead vocals and calling out the tunes. Earle's experiences with the judicial system hadn't exactly improved his voice, but he's in far more potent form than he had been on 1991's live set Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator, and his control and command of his instrument is genuinely impressive. Earle's natural cockiness works in his favor on these tunes, especially "Tom Ames' Prayer," "Hometown Blues," and "Angel Is the Devil," and his gift for telling a story is plainly evident on "Ben McCulloch" and a moving cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Tecumseh Valley." Train a Comin' is not an album that asks the audience to forgive Steve Earle for his sins; it's a document of an artist who after a season in hell has reclaimed his gift and is determined to put it to use, and after years of fighting Nashville to do things his own way, Earle resumed his career by following his own muse with eloquent simplicity, and Train a Comin' shows his instincts were entirely correct. [Winter Harvest's original release of Train a Comin' featured a sequence not approved by Earle, who reissued the album on his E Squared label with a different running order; some pressings of the E Square version also delete his cover of the Beatles' "I'm Looking Through You."]
Words: Mark Deming