Stephen “Steve” Fain Earle is an American singer-songwriter known for his rock and country music as well as his political views. He is also a published writer, a political activist and has written and directed a play. When he first came to prominence in 1986, he was viewed as a savior of country music (along with the likes of Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam) and hailed by some as the “new Bruce Springsteen.” In the later part of his career, after troubles with the law, drug addiction and his uncompromising viewpoints, he has become known as “the hardcore troubadour”.
Stephen Fain Earle was born on January 17, 1955, at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, the first born son of Jack Earle, an air traffic controller, and Barbara Earle. Although his parents moved around the U.S. often during his childhood, he spent several of his formative years in Schertz, Texas. He dropped out of school in the 9th grade to move to Houston and learn more about the music business.
In 1975, Earle moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he met and worked with Guy Clark and his wife Susanna. Clark was active in promoting Earle as a songwriter to the Sunbury Dunbar publishing division of RCA. Earle did backing vocals on “Desperados Waiting for a Train” (together with Emmylou Harris) on Clark’s first album Old No. 1.
Despite his early success as a songwriter, it was not until 1981 that Earle achieved a top-ten cut with “When You Fall in Love”, which was recorded by Johnny Lee.
Earle’s early work as a recorded performer was in the rockabilly style, and can be heard on the Early Years album. He had to wait until 1986, though, before his first proper album, Guitar Town, was released. It was a critical success and was eventually certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. The follow-up albums Exit 0 and the certified-gold Copperhead Road built on this success.
Earle had been a drug user since an early age and was addicted to heroin for many years. By the time of his 1990 album The Hard Way, it started to become clear that the drugs were seriously affecting him. In 1993, his drug problems resulted in him effectively stopping performing and recording for two years, a period he refers to as his “vacation in the ghetto”. He eventually ended up in jail on drug and firearms charges. Kicking the drug habit while in jail, Earle came out a new man and released two albums within 18 months of his release in late 1994. His comeback album, the bluegrass Train a Comin’, was nominated for the Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammy Award in 1996.
Earle’s “second, post-jail musical career” has been noticeably more musically diverse than his early work. Since setting up his own record label, he has been able to follow his own artistic direction, rather than being constrained by the Nashville country pop-rock sound. This has led to experimentation with a range of styles from country and bluegrass music to folk and hard rock music. He has maintained a strict work ethic. Several albums have been released since, as well as a book of haiku and a collection of short stories called Doghouse Roses. He also wrote and directed a play about the death penalty. Earle also tours often, playing over 200 shows per year. His concerts tend to be either solo acoustic shows or ensemble affairs with one of his two backing bands, the Dukes or the Bluegrass Dukes.
Earle is the subject of a documentary film entitled Just an American Boy, directed by Amos Poe, which explores his political views as well as his music. In 2005, he caused consternation among his fans by allowing the song “The Revolution Starts Now” to be used by General Motors in a TV advertisement for pick-up trucks.
Earle is also the subject of an acclaimed biography, Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet, by the noted New York-based music writer David McGee.
In September 2007, Earle released his twelfth studio album, Washington Square Serenade on New West Records. Earle recorded the album after relocating to New York City, and it was his first attempt at using digital audio workstation ProTools, as opposed to traditional analog recording techniques. The disc features wife Allison Moorer on “Days Aren’t Long Enough”.
In 2008, Earle produced Joan Baez’s album Day After Tomorrow. In the winter, he toured Europe and North America in support of Washington Square Serenade, performing half the set solo and the other half with a DJ.
In 2009, Earle released a tribute album, Townes, on New West Records. The album contains fifteen songs written by his late friend and musical mentor Townes Van Zandt. Guest artists appearing on the album include Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Earle’s wife Allison Moorer, and his son Justin Townes Earle.
I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (2011) is the anticipated follow up to the Grammy Award-winning 2009 release Townes. The eleven-track set was produced by T-Bone Burnett and is Earle’s first collection of original material since his 2007 Grammy Award-winning album, Washington Square Serenade. The album includes the celebrated song “This City”, written for the HBO Original Series, Treme, which Earle also appears in as an actor. “This City” features horn arrangements by Allen Toussaint and has garnered a Grammy Award nomination in the Best Song Written for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media category. Other highlights include the ballad “Every Part of Me” and the ode to those who make their living on the the Gulf of Mexico.
Highway is the 2013 release, the fifteenth album from the Americana/Alt-Country
singer/songwriter, and the highly anticipated follow up to 2011’s Grammy Award-nominated
album I’ll Never Get Out of This World
Alive. The Low Highway features
his live band and was co-produced by Earle and Ray Kennedy (whose production
partnership known as the “Twangtrust” was behind Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on
A Gravel Road). Between the opening title track and the reflective closing of “Remember
Me,” The Low Highway is very much
Steve Earle’s road record, and one that has seen many miles.
The Low Highway features “Love’s Gonna
Blow My Way” and “After Mardi Gras,” two songs Earle co-wrote with Lucia
Micarelli, his co-star in David Simon’s original HBO Series Treme. Earle played a recurring character, Harley, a street
musician who mentored Micarelli’s character Annie during the first two seasons.
The songs were written specifically for the series and an additional song
written by Earle for Treme, “That All You Got?,” was performed by Micarelli’s
character with the Red Stick Ramblers
during the third season premiere.