Given country-rocker Steve Earle's alternative musical tastes and his
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.
accused of tempering his opinions, Earle refers to Garth Brooks as "The Anti-Hank," maintaining that country's biggest star
little of Hank Williams' hillbilly soul. It's safe to assume he harbors similar feelings about Twain.
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.
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.
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
"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,
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
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
Sexsmith, and he just finished an album for Varnaline which Earle's label is likely to release this year.
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."
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."