Steve Earle entered the '90s with a monkey on his back and left them with a tiger by the tail. Where 1990 found him engaging in his own slow, illegal, lethal injections (to the tune of $500 to $800 a day), he now rails against those who would do the same thing legally and more quickly to others. The decade that opened with him singing with blatant desperation, borne aloft solely by a crumbling bravado, ended with him finding at last some words of solace: "I find that for me, for now, transcendence is about being still enough long enough to know when it's time to move on."
Earle's life has always been in his music, despite his occasional denial of ever writing an autobiographical song. "Hard Way," from 1990, at a close listen, wails with the voice of the author of Ecclesiastes who had attained all and found only the "vanity of vanities." Earle had made himself great works, bought a country spread, and had at his disposal flunkies and all the women he could handle, and all the gold and silver too. But as for the preacher of Ecclesiastes, so for Earle, who sang on "The Other Kind" about having "two of everything but hanging [my] head like [I] was down and out." When he got to the chorus -- "there are those that break and bend, but I'm the other kind" -- it was apparent he was singing to convince himself, rather than his audience, of this self-delusion.
For he was nothing in 1990 if not broken and bent. Much worse was to come. By now it is the stuff of Nashville Babylon legend. It explains in large part how he finds the time now to be so involved in so many projects at once. Since he no longer has to scrape together five to eight bills every morning just to start the day, he feels both time and energy are in an abundance he once thought unimaginable. "People don't understand what hard work it is being a drug addict," he told an English journalist earlier this year. "I hurt as much as I ever did, but now I can't mask that with drugs, so I have a lot more to write about."
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It's not just songs he's writing now either, though his latest album, Transcendental Blues, showcases 15 worthy additions to the Earle repertoire, but prose, poetry and drama as well. His first short-story collection, Doghouse Roses, is due out in the spring, and he is looking to stage a play he wrote about Karla Faye Tucker. He has had two poems published in Irish journals and composes a haiku a day, perhaps while pruning his recently adopted bonsai trees. Then there is his campaigning, not just against the death penalty but also in favor of welfare and against land mines.
The most famous among these beefs Earle has with society, and most relevant to us in Harris County, is the one he holds against capital punishment. Transcendental Blues has yet another stark and compelling anti-death-penalty anthem in "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)." Jonathan Nobles was executed in Huntsville in 1998 for killing two girls in a drug-induced rage, and he invited Earle to attend the injection. Earle did not want to go, but steeled himself and went. In an interview earlier this year, Earle said:
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"His mother had finally called, and for the first time in the 12 years he was in prison, he was allowed to talk to her. She told him that she used to love the way he sang "Silent Night' when he was a little boy. So, as his last act, he sang this carol for the mother who'd abused him and who'd allowed his stepfather to abuse him, and then, at a prearranged signal, the IV was switched on.
Suddenly, in the middle of the word "child,' all the air blew out of his lungs. It was a really loud sound, like "HUHHH!' and it looked like an invisible cinder block had dropped on his chest. The force was so violent his head pitched forward and his glasses bounced off his chest and fell on the floor. Then his eyes became fixed and he didn't move anymore."
Earle takes much of the remainder of his latest album to entrench himself in the music of his own abbreviated innocence. There's a quick, red-hot foray into bluegrass, "Until the Day I Die," featuring Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott replacing the Del McCoury Band, another into Irish folk-rock, "Galway Girl," and a naked and forlorn Van Zandtian rival to "Goodbye" and "My Old Friend the Blues" in "Lonelier than This," but Transcendental Blues owes above all else a heavy debt to the mid- to late Beatles. Sgt. Pepper's and Revolver, copies of which dwelt on a monitor throughout the recording process, positively haunt this CD. (Ironically, the longer Earle stays on the straight and narrow, the more narcotic his music becomes.) Large swaths of Transcendental Blues are, as the title implies, full-on sojourns into the mystic. He has never written a song as tantalizingly elusive as the fable "The Boy Who Never Cried," which hovers on the edge of the listener's understanding.
With this album, Earle has stripped away the intervening years and gone back to the moment when he first laid a needle on a spinning turntable and felt a room fill with hi-fi sound. Before he ran away from home at 13 and promptly got into heroin, before he met "the great teacher and bad role model" Townes Van Zandt, before he had racked up nearly a half-dozen ex-wives, before the "vacation in the ghetto" and his subsequent redemption, and before he watched Jonathan Nobles sing "Silent Night" to his mama and die, there was one immensely talented boy's fascination with the Beatles and their cheery, deceptively simple message of peace and love. For Earle, there's been plenty of blues since that moment of transcendence, and Earle's goal today is to get it back.