Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


EARLE, Steve

(b Stephen Fain Earle, 17 January 1955, Fort Monroe VA) Singer, songwriter, guitarist; raised in Texas, son of an air traffic controller, dropped out of school to become a musician. Moved to Nashville at 19, had songs covered by Carl Perkins, Connie Smith, others; Waylon Jennings included 'The Devil's Right Hand' on his first MCA LP. Earle's Guitar Town '86 on MCA, produced by Tony Brown (Elvis Presley) and Emory Gordy Jr (Emmylou Harris) included songs with country values, 'Hillbilly Highway' a particularly strong track. He was one of the first and best of a new wave of country acts. Rolling Stone said his sound owed more to Keith Richards than Chet Atkins: is that bad? Guitar styles aside, Guitar Town was excellent rock with a strong country flavour, or vice versa, with the virtue of eschewing excess production, unlike the 'countrypolitan' style associated with Atkins. Exit O '87 by Steve Earle and the Dukes was top 20 in the Billboard country chart mid-'87 while Guitar Town was still in the top 50; Early Tracks '87 scraped up on Epic; Copperhead Road '87 was another hit, but took him more in the rock direction; he made 'Johnny Come Lately' in London '88 with the Irish band the Pogues. On The Hard Way '90 he was back with the Dukes, who were with him live on Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator '91. A one-off duet with Joe Walsh on Carl Perkins's 'Honey Don't' was a single from the Beverly Hillbillies soundtrack album.

A heroin user since he was 13, not getting along too well with the Nashville establishment and married six times to five women, he hit a rough patch: MCA brought out a compilation album '93, he served a 60-day jail term on a drugs charge and finally kicked the habit, formed his own E-Squared Records and released Train A Comin' '95 to excellent reviews (nominated for a Grammy, but Emmylou Harris won for Wrecking Ball: both albums incl. Earle's 'Goodbye', a song he wrote during rehabilitation). He signed the Viceroys ('a pop band with country overtones'), made EP Johnny Too Bad with them, then his own I Feel Alright '96 was a return to form, with love songs, roots-rock and midnight-dark country blues. Wrote 'Ellis Unit One' for the Dead Man Walking album (other tracks by Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits); wrote 'Valentine's Day' on 13 Feb. '95 for his wife Lou-Anne (second marriage to her); Travid Tritt had a hit with Earle's 'Sometimes She Forgets' from '79); reunited on stage '96 with the Dukes' rhythm section, guitar discovery David Steele and Mark Stuart on keyboards, mandolin and guitar. El Corazon '97 might have been his best yet, all new material including every country influence and the 'first album I've ever done 100 per cent clean': he confessed that it was easier to write without drugs.

His son Justin Townes Earle (b 4 January 1982, Nashville; d 20 August 2020) also became a highly-rated singer-songwriter, releasing 13 albums of his own. No cause of death was given immediately, but he had inherited some of his dad's youthful bad habits. Steve Earle thought that his son was as good a songwriter as anybody, and maybe a better guitar picker than his dad; Steve had released tribute albums to Townes Van Zant (Townes 2009) and Guy Clark (Guy 2019), now he recorded ten of Justin's songs for J.T. 2020 on New West.