Over the past three decades, Steve Earle has established himself as a kind of rootsy Renaissance man: The Texas-bred songwriter is also a political activist, radio host, rocker, actor, and playwright. Early on he was a bandleader equally smitten with bouncy twang and brawny thud (no wonder he has shared bills with both George Jones and the Replacements). These days he's known as the smart dude with the big heart, writing a heap of provocative political tunes that stand up for the little guy. After overcoming a heroin addiction that derailed his career in the 1990s, he's become a widely respect, highly dependable workhorse.
Son of an air traffic controller, Earle was raised near San Antonio, where he spent a rebellious adolescence as a long-haired Vietnam War opponent with country music sympathies. He got serious fast. At 13 he grabbed a guitar. At 16 he left home. At 19 he married the first of his five wives. And, living in Houston, he met one of his key influences: songwriter Townes Van Zandt. Moving to Nashville, Earle fell in with a left-of-center crowd of talented songwriters. It's not every kid who hits Music City and becomes Guy Clark's bassist. For the next few years he traversed between Texas and Tennessee, making contacts, and fine-tuning his craft. Johnny Lee, Carl Perkins, and Patty Loveless each recorded at an Earle tune.
Though he released an EP entitled Pink & Black in 1981, it wasn't until the release of Guitar Town in 1986 that any real notice came Earle's way. The catchy twang of the New Traditionalist trend was making stars out of Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis. Critics and radio programmers liked what they heard. With his hard-kicking backup band the Dukes supplying plenty of muscle, he assailed Reaganomics and championed society's outsiders, appearing at Farm Aid II and allying himself with Fearless Hearts, a relief group for homeless children. The guy with a self-proclaimed "two-pack habit and a motel tan" knew how to put other people first. He just couldn't get out of his own way.
A year later Exit O proved its predecessor was no fluke, and in 1988 Copperhead Road roared with a sound that was more rock than country. It reached Number 56 on the pop chart, but its label crumbled and Earle's orneriness began to take its toll. As a result of an altercation with a Dallas security guard, the singer was fined $500 and given a one-year unsupervised probation. He was sued for alimony, and hit with a paternity suit - the tougher guitar sound and darker lyrics of 1990's The Hard Way reflected the headaches generated by his wild lifestyle. Critics still lauded his work, but commercially the record fared considerably less well than its predecessor. Trouble was brewing. No wonder he titled his live record Shut Up and Die Like An Aviator.
In late 1993, after a long hiatus from the studio, Earle began recording demos for a new album, but without a record contract at the time, he showed little sign of reclaiming his earlier success. During the past three years his personal life had imploded. Tales of his drug use were legend. In 1994 Earle was arrested in Music City for possession of narcotics and sentenced to almost a year in jail. After his release, he made the acoustic Train a Comin' on the Winter Harvest label. Boasting such guest vocalists as Harris and Nanci Griffith, the album included covers of songs by Van Zandt, the Beatles, and the reggae group the Melodians.
Train a Comin' garnered strong reviews and sold well for an indie, but it was with the swaggering I Feel Alright that Earle returned with a vengeance. "I've been to hell and now I'm back again," he snarled on the title track, a hard-won manifesto that proclaimed a life of sobriety. His first album of entirely new material in five years found Earle besting his demons. It also launched the E-Squared record label, an imprint that the singer operates with partner Jack Emerson. It also marked the debut of the Twangtrust, the production team of Earle and Ray Kennedy, whose credits include albums by Lucinda Williams, Cheri Knight, and Marah.
In 1996 Earle contributed a song about the human and social costs of the death penalty, "Ellis Unit One," to the movie Dead Man Walking. He has since emerged as a major voice in the campaign to abolish capital punishment. In 1997 he released El Corazón, a critically acclaimed album encompassing country, blues, folk, and rock. One of the record's tracks also featured a collaboration with the bluegrass group the Del McCoury Band, presaging Earle's headlong foray (with the McCourys) into the idiom, The Mountain (1999). In 2000 Earle released Transcendental Blues and in 2001 published a volume of short stories, Doghouse Roses.
Featuring "John Walker's Blues," an outrage-inducing track about the American Taliban soldier, Jerusalem (2002) revealed Earle's conflicted feelings about America's response to the attacks on September 11, 2001. Those opinions seem to solidify on The Revolution Start Now, which was released in tandem with the 2004 U.S. presidential election and received a Grammy in 2005 for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
The 2000s were an active time for Earle. He moved to New York City with his wife, singer Allison Moorer. He landed an intermittent role as an ex-addict named Walon in HBO's acclaimed show about the Baltimore streets, The Wire. He wrote and staged a play entitled Karla, about the first Texas women since the Civil War to suffer the death penalty, in 2005. He hosted a talked show on the short-lived Air America channel and spun outlaw country sounds on Sirius Satellite Radio.
Earle's son Justin Townes Earle, himself a professional singer with records on the Bloodshot label, was named after his dad's early mentor, Townes Van Zandt. In 2009 Earle formalized his celebration of his friend, who died on New Years Day 1997, with a CD of his songs entitled Townes. It's an inventive tribute, full of strong imagery and unusual arrangements.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jim Macnie contributed to this article.