Steve Earle: A Fearless Heart Survives

Making better music than ever and actually enjoying his life, an Americana legend finds his way past the darkness.

(Photo by Chad Batka)

Yes, Steve Earle‘s early life does read like some tragic yet ultimately triumphant Wild West novella.

Picture this. It’s a dusty muddy street in Guitar Town, and in rides a stranger. He’s that hot new Texas-bred guitarslinger with a quick draw frequently compared early on to the likes of Jesse James, that Springsteen fella from up Jersey way. But more than being just fast with a guitar, people quickly learned this Earle kid could spin tales like few could, dazzlin’ not only with his firepower but his pen, spinnin’ compelling, mesmerizing stories by the campfire about John Lee Pettimore, Johnny Come Lately and that Old Friend The Blues with the Fearless Heart. Yeah, this guy seemed like he had it made.

But the poison, the one that uses the needle and leaves the damage done, almost took it all away, all amidst six wives and eventually two sons, the first one battling with the same demons as his Papa. Earle would go to jail, to rehab, but even those who loved him thought he may never climb out of the mud and grime of addiction, and die like just another tragic promising musician.

But with immense talent and a steel-edged, pinpointed perspective, coupled with a gut full of Texas-size fortitude and determination, Steve Earle fought the demons back, shook the dust off, and has come through the hellfire to be heralded as one of music’s greatest storytellers, consistently and brilliantly combining the biting edge of rock and the rusty twang of country with the tender tale-weaving sense of folk, all with a scraggly edge that grabs you by the throat and holds on ’til ya listen. To his legion of worldwide fans and among his peers, Earle holds legend status, destined to be his generation’s next Hank Williams, Merle Haggard or hell, even Woody Guthrie.

But even some of his most loyal followers likely surmise that such intense trials and tribulations formed the man he is today, that without the struggles and the battles and the nearly dying, he might not be the battered yet unbeaten Steve Earle millions around the world respect and admire. But Earle’s not sure he buys that.

“You know what, I never bought the idea that art was in any way enhanced by stupid shit,” Earle told me from his New York City home before he began the next leg of his tour, which stops at the Birchmere on April 3. “It’s not about whether you suffer for your art. Everybody suffers, you know? That’s what Buddhism’s all about. Everybody suffers and if you are suffering then it should end up in your art. That’s one of the things that qualifies as art. Art is empathy. It’s letting people know that somebody else feels the same way that they do and are going through the same thing they do. That’s what this kind of art’s about. That’s what songwriting’s about to me. That’s the way I learned how to do it. I’d probably still be kind of interesting if I hadn’t gone through all that shit. But I had to go through it, so I did.”

In his humble way, Earle does feel he was somehow given something special to bring to people and that when push came to shove, he wasn’t gonna let the scourge of heroin or any other of life’s impediments sully that rare opportunity.

“I think that I was given a gift. And I think I did pretty well with it, and then I abused it to a point where I lost it for a while. And then when I stopped abusing it, I got it back immediately. I’ve made 17 records, and I made 13 of them sober and they’re pretty good records. I got a couple Grammy’s, I’ve written a couple of books, a play, so…you know?”

Among many of his Americana masterpieces, one of Earle’s most revered works is his seminal 1988 album Copperhead Road, the record that cemented Earle as something very special. And on this current tour, Earle and his Dukes will celebrate its 30th anniversary by performing it in its entirety.

“We knew that it would get to our ‘count’ a few years ago, we surely can’t do it with every record. I make like a record a year so I can’t do all of them, and I want to make new records and play new music. But this one you’re going to hear, and Copperhead Road‘s only 40 minutes long, so you’re going to hear that first at the beginning of the set, and the rest, God knows what you’ll hear after that. They’ll be some stuff that we didn’t play last time, and we’ll be conscious with the fact that we’ve been to D.C. twice.”

Even approaching his mid-60’s, Earle continues to make strong, powerful records, and his most recent one, 2017’s So You Wanna Be An Outlaw is no exception. It’s yet another opportunity for Earle to tell luminous and intimate tales about life, and the struggles and redemptions it brings.

“I had a musical thing where I wanted to connect people to where I sort of come from. It was clarifying part of the history. I have a radio show on the Outlaw country channel on Sirius, and people talk about things but they weren’t there, about what a moment was and what it represented, but I was there. Sometimes I just wanna straighten the record out a little bit. That’s what it kind of was about.”

Earle grew up being a protege of sorts to his Texas musical heroes and Townes Van Zandt, the latter wrestling with his own addictions. Earle found that even though he revered Van Zandt — he would eventually name his first son Justin Townes Earle — there was a point when he knew he had to separate himself from the potentially fatal temptations in front of him.

“I loved Townes and his legend continues to grow, and be so special. But I distanced myself from him at one point in my life because I knew that he and some of the people around him were in trouble and gonna stay in trouble. It was embarrassing to me in some respects but after I got sober, he actually respected it. But when I was not sober and I was just trying to keep things between the ditches and still use and drink, I didn’t hang out with him all the time because he and all the people around him blazed, probably all those people were just kind of train wrecks, and I knew that none of them were really going anywhere so I stayed away from them, and hung out with Guy.”

Not only has Earle made a lasting mark on music, but his appearance on TV’s The Wire as a recovering addict has helped some other addicts come to terms with and even conquer their disease. Earle wasn’t in it to become an advocate, but he’s glad his real-life experiences were able to give people some hope.

“I didn’t really think about it when I was doing it ’cause first I was just scared, and then I realized okay, I don’t have to act for this. I’m playing a redneck recovering addict, I don’t really have to act so that’s fine. I had a really great actor to work with every scene, except he wouldn’t put up with me not knowing my lines and shit. He was like, ‘Come on, let’s do a speed through, you’re not keeping me out here all day.’ But I learned a lot about how you do it. The funny thing is, I’m recognized more from that role than I am for anything else, and it’s around the world. It’s people that don’t even know I make records  Some people don’t know it’s not real, and they’re like, ‘Hey man, thanks for helping.’ ”

Earle has always been a very vocal social activist, not afraid to speak his mind. He has come out vehemently against capital punishment and has spoken loudly on the poor’s lack of access for abortions and other hot-button issues. But these days, his passion is driven by his almost 8 year-old autistic son (with ex-wife, the singer/songwriter Allison Moorer), the son with the perfect Steve Earle style name: John Henry Earle.

“I do a lot of work when it comes to autism because I have a son with autism, so I spend most of my activist energy raising money for his school. Eventually I want to build some sort of clearing house for making sure that kids all around the country have what he’s getting, which is the treatment they really should have from the time that they’re diagnosed. Nobody has it. New York City is about the only place that it exists and where there’s any options at all. This is an epidemic and these kids, some come from the top, some of them don’t. Maybe the cure for cancer and the answer to climate change could be locked up inside one of these kids. It’s essential that we figure out what’s going on, what’s causing this, and try to fix it.”

So what if the 63 year-old Steve Earle got a chance to talk to the 23 year-old handsome young budding rock star Steve Earle, who was ripping it up in the 1988 “Copperhead Road” video? Would he, could he, say anything to help him better forge a less self-destructive path?

“You can’t, man. My friend Doug, when I got out of jail, he’s going, ‘Everybody told me, ‘Hey, Steve’s in trouble man, you gotta talk to him.’ But I tell ’em, man, Steve’s a San Antonio cat, you can’t talk to him.’ So no, I don’t think I could’ve said anything to that young guy. Many have tried, and a lot of people smarter than me, so it’s one of those things. It makes a good question, but the answer is that you know, people get clean when they’re ready to. It’s a bummer, I wish you could make people be clean. It doesn’t mean you shut up, it doesn’t mean you don’t try to intervene, but it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to compel anybody to do anything differently than they’re already doing it.”

And as for the present day Steve Earle, the one with a little less hair and little more bulk but more gifted than ever, who has battled through the worst a guy can go through and come out pretty much whole on the other side…does he “feel alright tonight”?

“Yeah man, I still like my job, and you know I’ve gotten to see a good chunk of the world. I can see Paris every 18 or 19 months. I don’t have anything to complain about.”

Steve Earle and the Dukes with special guest The Mastersons perform Tuesday April 3 at 7:30pm at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22305. For tickets click here.

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