He continued to make breathtaking music -- as critics duly noted -- but in the absence of a clearly identifiable commercial handle, the angry rockers and bleak ballads that filled his next two records, Copperhead Road and The Hard Way, foundered on the charts.

"West Nashville Boogie" was propelled by a strain of proletarian rage that is anathema to popular country, a genre meant to soothe, not incite. "Billy Austin," the wrenching tale of a half-breed murderer murdered by the state, served up not only a political message, but a liberal one at that.

Earle's personal conduct, meanwhile, continued to degenerate.
It would be foolish to blame the dunderheads of Nashville for Earle's celebrated drug problem. That's his own damn fault, plain and simple, and our culture is already too full of stars who justify their fuckups by claiming tortured artist exemptions (Michael Jackson, Courtney Love, et cetera). But it is fair to wonder if Earle's self-destructive tendencies weren't fueled by the fact that he so obviously slipped between the cracks. A little external validation couldn't have made matters any worse.

Whatever the cause and effect, Earle found himself booted from MCA and, by 1993, in the hoosegow on drug charges. Behind bars, he finally went into rehab and stuck with it.

His 1995 comeback album, a brilliant acoustic set called Train a Comin', was issued on the tiny Winter Harvest label, followed earlier this year by the harder-edged I Feel Alright (released by Warner Bros. in a licensing deal with Earle's E Squared boutique label). Both records are full of thoughtful, bare-knuckled music -- the same kind of music, in other words, that Earle has been making for the last ten years.

The finest example is "CCKMP (Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain)," a mesmerizing confessional of his addiction that has long been a staple of Earle's incendiary live shows. It's no surprise that Earle never released the song before. After all, the proclamation that "heroin's the only thing" wouldn't have gone over too well in his years as country's mal enfant.

But having been suitably scrubbed of his undesirable trappings, having been "saved" by the Holy Church of Sobriety, Earle -- like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and a host of others before him -- is now enjoying the benefits of a popular resurrection: appearances in Rolling Stone and on MTV; a strong marketing push from Warner; healthy record sales; and, of course, a ballyhooed re-release of the overlooked music he made back in the bad old days.

It's being billed as a downright inspirational story, which it would be, I suppose, if it were put in the context of a popular country music song. Thankfully, this is Steve Earle we're talking about. Even clean and sober, he's got no intention of wasting his time making the musical equivalent of lithium. He's off the smack. But, just as important, he's cured of Nashville.

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