Steve Earle was a tough choice for this slot. On the one hand, what can you write about him that has not already been well documented? On the other hand, how can you omit one of its prime movers from an A-Z of Americana? To try and get a different perspective on the man, I’ve decided to write from a personal perspective; me and Steve Earle if you like.
My first encounter with Steve Earle was via Andy Kershaw’s report for Whistle Test, the truncated 1980s version of The Old Grey Whistle Test. This coincided with the release of his debut album Guitar Town in 1986. The album blew me away and helped to steer my musical tastes in completely new directions. Since then I have bought every one of his albums and quite a few bootlegs too. I have also probably seen him live more often than any other major Americana act. During the 34 years since the release of that debut, Steve Earle has been a constant musical companion.
So why has Steve Earle held such a tight grip on me over all these years? Yes, there is the music of course, but Earle himself has proved to be something of a magnetic character as well. More of that later, lets start with the music. From the first twangy notes of Guitar Town through to the excellent and most recently released Ghosts of West Virginia, Earle has maintained a remarkably consistent high standard of output. He has released 16 albums of original material of which only 2015’s Terraplane was a disappointment. In addition, there have been excellent collaborations with The Del McCoury Band (The Mountain) and Shawn Colvin (Colvin & Earle), as well as two albums of covers of the songs of his friends and mentors Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.
Steve Earle has always kept us guessing. From the straight up rock of The Hard Way to the bluegrass of The Mountain, he has used and developed a diverse range sounds to great effect. The one thing that always shines through, whatever the style, is the quality of the songs. Whether the subject matter is love, loss and heartbreak or whether its highlighting and addressing political issues, Earle is a master of them all. What has consistently connected me to him, is that whether the subject matter is emotional or political, Steve Earle is always uncompromising. This brings me on to the nature of the man himself. Steve Earle has not had an easy ride. His brushes with the law, with drink and drugs and his time spent in jail are all well documented, not to mention his seven marriages. He really is a ‘larger-than-life’ character. Of course, some of his troubles have been self-inflicted, but that only adds to the ‘flawed genius’ persona that is part of his attraction.
Finally, no small part of my admiration for Steve Earle has been his championing of political issues. His consistent campaigning against the death penalty (including three songs on the subject) is not any easy sell in many states, particularly Texas, where he grew up. Even more than this though, his questioning of authority and his highlighting of inequality, along with his opposition to war have provoked bitter and often quite ferocious backlashes in his home country. John Walker’s Blues in particular, saw him demonised by the US establishment and media. However, he would not be silenced and despite all the wonderful music that he has given us, that to me, is his greatest legacy.