Steve Earle begins the leadoff and title story of his newly-released book of short stories, Doghouse Roses, with this description of my home town:
“No matter which direction you travel, it takes three hours to get out of L.A. Yeah, I know there are all those folks with a head start for the Grapevine out in Northridge and Tarzana, but hell, to those of us in the trenches, the real Angelenos, those places are only luminescent names on big green signs seemingly suspended in midair above the 101 freeway.”
You can bet that I took notice of the accusation that I’m not an actual Angeleno, but only a Northridge native. And this from a Texan mistakenly birthed in Virginia. (Thanks to a shipment from the family farm, Texas soil was the first to touch Earle’s feet.)
With my attention thus captured, I couldn’t miss the fact that the remainder of the story was blatantly autobiographical, chronicling the ascension, Phoenix-from-the-ashes-style, of a singer-songwriter after fiddling with drugs more potent than just “the kind.”
As he prepares for his upcoming book signing and big-time rock and roll show in Missoula on July 10, Earle sits pretty as somewhat of a Renaissance man and seriously-intense dude. The closing paragraph of a recent Magnet magazine cover story on Earle aptly summarizes his current status:
“Steve Earle, a man once barely alive, now seems to be living a half dozen lives all at once. Five acclaimed post-jail albums. Countless tours. A book of fiction. A record label. A theater group. A litany of good deeds in the name of sociopolitical activism. As I recite this list, Earle stares out the tour bus window. ‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘sometimes it’s almost like it’s a different career and I’m a different person.’”
The old Steve Earle was a confident, talented, driven, born musician who broke in as a bassist and backup vocalist for Guy Clark in 1975. In 1986, and with one full-length album, Guitar Town, under his belt, Earle earned Rolling Stone’s endorsement as Country Artist of the Year. In 1988, Earle released Copperhead Road, the title track of which remains Earle’s biggest mainstream single.
Seven years, one album, many rocks of crack cocaine and a brief but cathartic jail term later, Earle began a powerful comeback with the first of five excellent albums, Train a Comin’. In that time, Earle also has cranked out an impressive array and quantity of prose. Besides his debut book of 11 stories, Earle has recently published an article on Emmylou Harris for the Oxford American and an excellent account in Tikkun magazine of comforting Texas death-row inmate Jonathan Nobles during the days leading up to his execution. Earle’s agent is also looking for a publisher for a book of entries from Earle’s road journals interspersed with haiku.
But you don’t have to read Earle’s writing or any of the numerous glowing articles written about his life and his work to get a sense of the spirit and determination that oozes from Steve Earle these days. You don’t have to know a thing about Earle’s activism towards abolishing the death penalty or his role in founding a record label which boasts such titles as the Steal This Movie soundtrack, Lucinda Williams’ Essence, and Earle’s last four albums. To tap into Steve Earle’s vibe, you don't even have to peer into his self-assured stare piercing the cover of the Magnet magazine cover. All you have to do is listen to his music.
Earle’s latest release is last year’s Transcendental Blues, which is pretty much a straight-up, sophisticated rock album with a hint of bluegrass and a sprinkle of the Irish. Earle deftly mixes an array of instruments into his well-crafted tunes, and he’s one of a handful of artists who can pull off a transition like following the old-timey “Until the Day I Die” with the hard, bass-driven “All of My Life.”
This might come as a shocker, but the most memorable aspect of Transcendental Blues just might be the lyrics. We can only hope that Earle’s set list in Missoula will include a duet with his sister Stacy Earle on the achingly beautiful “When I Fall,” which includes the line on the album most likely to become etched into your heart:
“If I soar above the clouds and then/I come crashin’ back to earth again,” sing the Earles with bittersweet harmony. “You will catch me if I fall.”
That sort of support network seems to fuel’s Earle’s continuing expansion into his impressive arsenal of creative talents. Add to Earle’s confidence drive, talent and musical savvy, a heaping helping of energy and an almost eerie focus, and you wind up with a musician and author who is easy to enjoy—whether you’re a Texan, an Angeleno, or a Montanan.
Steve Earle and the Dukes perform at University Theatre this Tuesday at 8 PM. Tickets are $25 advance and $27 day of show, available from all TIC-IT-EZ outlets or by phone : 1-888-MONTANA.