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Steve Earle: Back in the Saddle

C&W outlaw Steve Earle returns from his lost years

April 18, 1996 12:00 AM ET

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS732 from April 18, 1996. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

While Steve Earle was recording his new album, I Feel Alright, last year, he burst into the studio across the hall looking for help from Diamond Rio, one of those well-scrubbed Eagles-lite bands. "I went over there at 1 o'clock in the morning," Earle recalls, "and said, 'Y'all got a tire iron we can borrow?' They said, 'Y'all have a flat?' And I said, 'No, we want to throw it down the stairwell and record it.' They thought I was kidding."

Earle leans back in his chair at Nashville's Room and Board Studios and cackles with glee. That mischievous, infectious laugh was Earle's trademark when he first hit the national scene with his 1986 album, Guitar Town, which suggested what Bruce Springsteen or Lou Reed might sound like if they had grown up hitchhiking around Texas with a guitar and a Waylon Jennings songbook. Friends of Earle's say his laugh disappeared from 1991 to 1994, when he lost himself in a haze of heroin addiction, legal troubles and musical inactivity. The reappearance of the laugh, his friends add, is the surest sign that Earle is well again and ready to resume torturing mainstream Nashville with his unorthodox approach to country music.

During his lost years, Earle inhabited the streets of South Nashville like a skeletal ghost, emaciated by too many drugs and not enough food, but he has gained back all that weight and a little more, too. With a pudgy belly stretching his green T-shirt and black suspenders, and a dark, fuzzy beard, Earle now resembles Little Feat's late frontman, Lowell George. Claiming to be clean and sober for 17 months and counting, Earle is so full of energy and excitement he can hardly finish one thought before he's off on another. As his longtime guitarist, Richard Bennett, puts it, "I hadn't heard from him in about six years, and all of a sudden there he was on the phone, the old Steve, talking a mile a minute with a million things to say. There was joy and life in his voice again. That's when I knew he was back."

"So we got the tire iron," Earle says, picking up his story, "and Ray [Kennedy, his co-producer] was running about a quarter mile of cables out to this six-story stairwell. I started whacking the shit out of this metal banister with the tire iron, but I couldn't get the low-end sound I wanted. This buddy of mine named Dub was there, and he's so big he could just take the palm of his hand and whomp on the banister, so it went whoomp-fwoom-fwoom-fwoom, oscillating up the stairwell. That's the ambient noise on 'Cocaine Can't Kill My Pain."'

The track is very unusual for a drug song. Most either celebrate the pleasures of intoxication or describe the horrors of dependency, but Earle manages to do a bit of both, creating something richer and more realistic. It's a droning 10-bar blues in the style of Earle's biggest influence, Towns Van Zandt. Neither cocaine nor whiskey can quiet the singer's pain: Heroin is "the only gift the darkness brings," and there's no use in talking to him about it until "these blues have gone." The bleary, weary music evokes the dilemma of an addict who believes in nothing except for his drug of choice, but finds less and less satisfaction even there.

"I worried about putting that song on the album," Earle admits. "There's a danger in glamorizing that lifestyle. I've got two 14-year-old kids and a 9-year-old, and I see how influential the music they listen to is. Music was very influential on me as a kid. But I decided to go ahead and include that song for two reasons. First, if someone thinks that song glamorizes drugs, they're not listening to it. And, second, it's true. That's the way I was. And that's my job: to describe myself in music as honestly as possible."

Earle, who just turned 41, grew up in San Antonio, enthralled by the example of the Texas outlaw as embodied by Van Zandt, Waylon and Willie, and Jerry Jeff Walker. He dropped out of school at 16 and hitchhiked around the state with his acoustic guitar, hanging out with his heroes and playing at any bar he could sneak into or any coffeehouse that would have him. He lived the life of the rootless loner unbeholden to any lover, law or schedule, and he has celebrated that image in such songs as "I Ain't Ever Satisfied" and "The Other Kind." On his new album, though, Earle also acknowledges the other side of the outlaw's life — the price exacted from the people around the rebel.

"I would hate to be my wife," says Earle, who has been married six times to five different women. "I've been a serial husband, and I've done it badly every time. I believe in marriage, and I believe in family, and I want that, too, but I'm still a sucker for the romance of the outlaw, and I hope I stay that way. Maybe that's unrealistic, but romance by its very nature is unrealistic. It's hard for the two desires to coexist, and I don't know if you can reconcile that contradiction. Maybe the best you can do is write both songs."

If "The Unrepentant" is one of those songs, "Hurtin' Me, Hurtin' You" is the other. Built around the guitar figure from Otis Redding's "I've Got Dreams to Remember," it's a gorgeous soul ballad, a heart-felt apology and an overdue admission that Earle has hurt more than just himself with his self-destruction.

"I only wrote a handful of songs while I was out on the street," Earle says, "but I wrote those two on the same day. I knew I couldn't let myself get away with writing 'The Unrepentant' without writing 'Hurtin' Me, Hurtin' You.' It wouldn't have told the whole story; it wouldn't have been honest."

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