Last of the Hard-core Troubadours

If you're a long-suffering songwriter pondering how to get yourself one of them fancy-schmancy MTV concert specials, you might consider the Steve Earle plan.

This plan consists of the following elements:
1. Write a whole shitload of killer songs.
2. Take them to Nashville.

3. Toil in undeserved obscurity long enough to get yourself good and hooked on junk.

4. Go to the pokey on drug charges.
5. As part of your parole plan, stage an anti-drug-themed prison concert.
6. Wait for the Nashville suits to start calling back.

Makes sense, right? Well, not exactly. Steve Earle's odyssey from Nashville pariah to comeback kid doesn't make much sense at all. It's a saga of galling idiocy, sponsored in equal parts by the country music industry, Earle himself and, well, the greater music industry.

The latest testament to this craziness is the recently released Ain't Ever Satisfied, a compilation of songs culled from Earle's years at MCA. Make no mistake, the album itself is a godsend, stacked from stem to stern with the songs that prove Earle to be one of our era's finest songwriters. Most every must-have from Earle's five MCA albums can be found here, along with a dozen live recordings, rarities and covers.

The two-CD set includes studio versions of "Guitar Town," "Copperhead Road" and "The Rain Came Down," as well as a thrashing eight-minute concert take of "West Nashville Boogie" and the Rolling Stones' gem "Dead Flowers." Earle's mischievous raveup of Dave Dudley's "Six Days on the Road" and the rollicking rockabilly original "Continental Trailways Blues" (both salvaged from the Planes, Trains and Automobiles soundtrack) are balanced by his haunting reworking of Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper."

It's a bounty, all right, but a bounty won -- in typical Earle fashion -- the hard way. MCA, you see, was the same label that gave Earle the boot back in 1991, before he was a pudgy poster boy for recovery, when he was still the lean and dangerous type, a brilliant musician with an unfortunate penchant for narcotics and their attendant legal hassles.

To understand the full irony of Earle's seesawing career, though, requires a more thorough history. He was born in 1955 in Fort Monroe, Virginia. He grew up around San Antonio, learned guitar at age 11 and started taking drugs a couple of years later. At 14 he moved to Houston, where he met Townes Van Zandt, an early mentor who also became a besotted role model for the budding young bard.

In 1974, Earle moved to Nashville. He was 19 years old. For the next eight years, he struggled as a session man and songsmith, landing a deal with Epic Records that quickly fizzled after he made a few desultory singles and almost placed a song on an Elvis Presley album. Often, though, Earle had to resort to day jobs, which helped stoke his affinity for drugs and violence. His big break came in 1982, when Johnny Lee scored a Top Ten hit with Earle's "When You Fall in Love." Soon Waylon Jennings, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, Kathy Mattea and Shawn Colvin (among others) had recorded Earle originals.

Earle's prowess as a songwriter led producer Tony Brown to sign him to MCA. His first album, Guitar Town, was released in 1989. Though hailed by critics as an instant classic, the record was given only lukewarm support by Nashville's kingmakers. With its unflinching lyrical stance and jagged rock instrumentation, Earle's music didn't fit within the comfy confines of country. At its most pointed, Earle's music was anti-country. That is, the lives it portrayed stood in grim opposition to the glorified red-white-and-blue-collar mythos that Nashville usually shills.

Despite its down-home rhetoric, country is a genre rooted in escapism, in the notion that adultery, divorce, drudgery and unemployment can take on a certain hangdog glamour if crooned about jauntily enough. Earle's songs, however, refused to varnish the truth. In "Someday" he chronicled the excruciating disempowerment of a small-town loser, a kid doomed to a life of meaningless toil in the service industry. "My brother went to college 'cause he played football," Earle rasps. "But I'm still hanging round 'cause I'm a little bit small."

Despite his undeniable ear for a hook, songs like this were simply too dark, too sophisticated, for commercial radio. What's more, Earle himself was a tough property to market. He didn't just sing about a wild, white trash lifestyle; he looked the part (motel tan, biker jewelry, tattoos) and lived it (multiple arrests, multiple marriages, a heroin addiction that was common knowledge among Music City bizzers.)

As a point of contrast, consider that Guitar Town was released around the same time as the debuts of Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. Travis, that bland hunk with a bottomless baritone, and Yoakam, a rebel manque with form-fitting leather pants, went on to become the twin princes of "new country." Earle, meanwhile, continued to butt heads with the lords of Music Row. His second album, Exit O, rocked even harder, leading MCA bigwigs to exile him to the label's rock/pop division. From this point on he became, simply put, a genre bastard.

Unlike guys such as Springsteen and John Mellencamp, though, Earle was stuck in Nashville, and saddled with the country label. That meant the arbiters of mainstream rock -- MTV and radio station programmers, primarily -- wouldn't go near him.

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.