Given country-rocker Steve Earle
’s alternative musical tastes and his
renegade artistic stance, it seems odd to see a Shania Twain poster hanging outside his office door. A closer look at Twain’s exposed midriff offers clarity; the word “talent” is handwritten on the poster with an arrow pointing to the superstar’s infamous bellybutton.
Never accused of tempering his opinions, Earle refers to Garth Brooks as “The Anti-Hank,” maintaining that country’s biggest star possesses
little of Hank Williams’ hillbilly soul. It’s safe to assume he harbors similar feelings about Twain.
Keeping Music Row at arm’s length, the independent-minded Earle has the savvy to sustain his iconoclasm while conspiring with big business, whether it’s partnering with his current label, Artemis Records, for national sales distribution or teaming up with CMT for sponsorship of his current U.S. and Canadian tour. CMT will telecast Steve Earle and the Dukes Transcendental Blues Live Sunday (Feb. 4) at 11:30 p.m. ET. The 60-minute special repeats Feb. 10 at 11 a.m. ET and Feb. 26 at 10:30 p.m. ET.
Taped last July at Toronto’s Convocation Hall, the concert features Earle’s 1988 hit, “Copperhead Road,” and songs from Transcendental Blues, up for Best Contemporary Folk Album at the Grammy Awards on Feb. 21. Backing Earle on the concert special is his band, The Dukes, including bassist Kelly Looney, guitarist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and
drummer Will Rigby.
“This is the first time I’ve ever agreed to corporate sponsorship for a tour,” Earle says, searching for an ashtray as he sits behind his office desk. “CMT has always played my videos and, to some degree, has supported me without me having to do very much. I’m never going to be played on mainstream country radio again, and I don’t really
“CMT has been a good outlet for my videos,” he goes on to say. “Videos are expensive to make, even when you make them cheap like I make them now. They’ve got to be seen somewhere. I no longer
really identify CMT solely and directly with the mainstream country music business. It’s now a part of MTV Networks, associated with VH1.”
Earle’s manager has waged an ongoing campaign to get him to accept a cost-defraying tour sponsorship. In the past, Earle routinely refused.
“This time it made sense to me,” he says. “It’s pretty much in line with what I’m doing for a living — selling records in the commercial music business. With CMT, I’m dealing with a company that basically is already involved in getting music out there and getting my music out there.
“I won’t do sponsorships for companies just to sell their stuff,” he counters. “I wouldn’t take tour sponsorship from the Gap, and I think everything I’m wearing right now is from the Gap — clothes I bought with my own money. It just doesn’t make sense as far as what I do for a living.”
Earle has had a peculiar relationship with Nashville’s music industry since putting the country world on notice with his breakthrough 1986 album, Guitar Town. At a time when decidedly non-twang lightweights like T.G. Sheppard and Gary Morris ruled the roost, Earle boasted in the album’s title track that he was a “good rockin’ daddy down from Tennessee” and showed that incendiary hillbilly music — the kind Hank would appreciate — could again top the country album charts.
Earle’s office sits just off Nashville’s Music Row, a fitting place for a country rebel whose career operates on the fringes of mainstream country. After releasing five albums on MCA Nashville, he
took creative and commercial control of his music, co-producing his records with Ray Kennedy and launching his own label, E-Squared Records, with business partner Jack Emerson.
Like Lucinda Williams, Earle’s ragged-but-right music has found a loyal following among roots-music fans. Earle co-produced Williams’
stunning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road album, and the two songwriters have been guiding lights in the alternative country movement. With no support from contemporary country radio, Transcendental Blues, Earle’s ninth studio album, debuted in June at No. 5 on Billboard’s sales-driven Top Country Albums chart.
Earle’s work continues to diversify and grow in scope. One of the most restless artists in music, he has juggled a mind-boggling array of activities since his arrest for drug possession in 1994. Earle served three weeks in jail, lived one month in a detox center and spent three years on probation. Now in good health and clean for six years, after kicking his 26-year heroin addiction, Earle seems to be
making up for lost time. He now directs the energy once spent looking for dope and getting high toward a highly focused and disciplined personal agenda.
In addition to touring, attending 12-step meetings and overseeing E-Squared, Earle is writing a play about Karla Faye Tucker, who three years ago became the first woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War. Tentatively scheduled to open next year in Nashville, the play will be produced by Earle’s new theater company, Broad Axe.
The drama ties in with Earle’s tireless work on behalf of death row inmates and his political campaign to abolish the death penalty. Earle’s profile as an outspoken opponent of capital punishment has risen since 1990 when he recorded “Billy Austin,” a song in which the title character reflects on his death sentence for killing a gas
station attendant. The anti-death penalty cause also has inspired recent Earle songs such as “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song),” the closing track of Transcendental Blues, and “Ellis Unit One,” which
appears on the soundtrack to Dead Man Walking.
As further evidence of his artistic drive, Earle has completed his first collection of short stories, Doghouse Roses, to be published June 11 by the Houghton Mifflin Company. The prolific writer also has committed himself to composing one haiku a day for a year.
Earle has released five albums in the past six years, and he continues to write songs and produce records at a rapid rate. He recently co-produced a new album for Canadian singer-songwriter Ron
Sexsmith, and he just finished an album for Varnaline which Earle’s label is likely to release this year.
Earle is planning the second E-Squared release by Philadelphia-based band Marah, and he is thinking about scoring an independent film by director Susanna Styron (daughter of Sophie’s Choice writer William Styron).
Also keeping Earle occupied is his relationship with girlfriend and fellow activist Sara Sharpe, whom he met through anti-death penalty work. “I Can’t Wait,” “Everyone’s in Love With You” and other songs from Transcendental Blues chronicle their relationship.
“It’s the most emotionally driven album I’ve made,” admits Earle, who has been married six times. “It has a lot of love songs on it because I’m in love — and really stupid-in-love. Recovery is still at the
center of my life, and some of the things on this record reflect that. It’s just not as overt as it was on [1996’s] I Feel Alright and [1997’s] El Corazon because the bigger event in my life is the relationship that I’m in.
“I was getting ready to move to Ireland by myself. I still go there for a couple of months at a time when I can, but I was going to move there lock, stock and barrel. Then I met Sara, and she’s got small kids and those kids have a daddy and he lives in Tennessee. So, I had to change my plans.”
At age 46, with two teenage boys of his own, Earle broadcasts his aspirations to settle down on “Steve’s Last Ramble,” a song from Transcendental Blues. “I’m thinking about giving up this rambling
’round and hanging up my highway shoes,” he sings to a rambunctious accordion-and-mandolin track recorded in Ireland with the Sharon Shannon Band.
“I’m nowhere near as comfortable touring as I used to be,” Earle reveals. “I’m happier at home than I’ve ever been. I’ve hidden in the back of a bus for a lot of my life. It was one environment that I totally controlled.
“I’m finally grown up enough to realize it’s not healthy — to put it in honest recovery terms — to create the illusion that I’m in control of any environment,” he continues. “Close as I could come
was being on the road when I’m the boss. At home it doesn’t work like that. There are kids and a very strong-willed woman. I’m just one of the people who lives there. I’m OK with that.”