He was the barely known opener at a six-act country concert in the
sticks south of San Diego. I can’t remember exactly how he insulted that
afternoon crowd of cowboy hats — maybe it was just his long greasy hair
and lack of Nashville sparkle — but it was interesting enough to lure me
behind the outdoor stage to his ugly tour bus. Waylon Jennings was singing
while somebody on Steve Earle’s payroll told me to get lost. Finally Earle
stepped down and I asked for a quick interview. He grumbled until he heard
“college paper,” and then he was Mr. Friendly.
That was 1986, when college radio was going to save rock n’ roll from
itself. Earle was climbing the Billboard country charts with his debut,
“Guitar Town,” but he really wanted to be on the playlist with Hüsker Dü
and the Replacements. So we sat in the bus for an hour, talking about
everything but the popular Nashville music of the day. After a decade of
chasing country stardom, it was pretty clear he already despised the prize.
A few nights later, Earle played a cowboy club on the other side of the
county. He wouldn’t let the promoters or deejays on the bus, but I found
the Beat Farmers’ Country
Dick Montana inside. Narcotics were in evidence. Earle and his band,
the Dukes, played a fine show that night — including a long, weird version
of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper.” The crowd didn’t much like it, but
Springsteen had been spotted at Tower Records on Sunset Strip forcing
copies of Earle’s LP on strangers. Now that was important.
That’s how Earle’s brain works. By the late 1980s, he hated Nashville so
much that he started to dress and act like Axl Rose … or Rose’s gun-nut
cousin back in Tennessee. He lost his record contract, a couple more wives,
and all of his teeth. The judges finally tired of his dope-sick face and
tossed him in prison.
This week’s trouble is vintage Earle. For his new album, “
lem,” Earle wrote and recorded a new song from the href="http://www.metafilter.com/mefi/18614#308196">imagined point of
view of American Taliban John Walker Lindh. Even though the
criminal-narrator formula has long been used by the likes of Merle Haggard,
Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Springsteen, Nick Cave, Eminem and another
thousand songwriters, Earle told a Canadian crowd his latest
contribution to the genre “just may get me fuckin’ deported.”
(On his own Web site, Earle
href="http://steveearle.com/bio.html">contradicts this claim by saying,
“I’m not trying to get myself deported or something” and calls the new CD ”
the most pro-American record I’ve ever made.”)
It’s vintage Earle, both the song and the melodrama. Since getting out
of jail and kicking his chemical habits, Earle has painstakingly rebuilt
his career with a string of href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/stores/artist/glance/-/56104/ken
laynecom">excellent, thoughtful albums. He’s become an ace producer and
godfather to the alt-country scene. But he still can’t get along with
people, as proven by his late 1990s’ immersion in bluegrass: he worked hard
with the Del McCoury Band for “The Mountain,” then turned mean when the
Christian bluegrass boys got sick of his foul mouth.
The latest outrage was all over
talk radio. While his loyal fans will brush it off as another chapter in
Earle’s endless effort to pick a fight, those who don’t appreciate his
music see it as a George Michael-esque attempt to “rebuild his faltering
career,” as Nashville deejay Phil Valentine told the New York Post. Who
cares what some Nashville deejay says? It’s not like you hear Steve Earle
on Hot Country 107.5.
His career seems just fine. He’s got plenty of money and makes the music
he wants. His last six records have all done well on the Americana, AAA and
Billboard country charts — pretty good considering commercial radio
doesn’t play such music outside of Texas. And he’s been nominated for href="http://steveearle.net/accolade.htm">eight Grammy awards while
routinely topping the critics’ lists.