In last week’s Chain Gang we had Johnny Cash cavorting and killing around the wild west and, at the end of his song, ‘Cocaine Blues’, advising the listener to “lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be.” One man who certainly didn’t follow this advice was Steve Earle. A youthful member of the legendary circle of songwriters (including Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clarke) who feature in the film, Heartworn Highways, Earle was surrounded, not only by a galaxy of song writing talent, but also a hard drinking and drug taking culture. Nevertheless, by the late 1980s Earle was shaping up to eclipse his mentors (at least in terms of sales and media recognition) with ‘Guitar Town’, ‘Exit O’ and especially ‘Copperhead Road’ cementing his reputation as a part of a new wave of country artists.
Touring incessantly, Earle was getting more and more tangled up in a habit as the 90s’ hove into view. MCA Records dropped him and there’s a tale told of him being given a plane ticket to New York, where he was to make a deal that would salvage his career. He sold the ticket to get some money to score of course. This all came to a head in 1994 when he was sentenced to a year in jail for failing to appear in court on a heroin charge. He spent 60 days locked up and had to attend a rehab course. It’s a familiar tale, especially in rock’n’roll, but to Earle’s credit, he emerged from this transformed and, as far as this writer knows, he’s trod the straight and narrow since then.
Shortly after his release Earle recorded ‘Train A’Comin’’, his first album in five years. It was quite an astonishing success, abandoning the Springsteen like bluster of 1990s’ ‘The Hard Way’ and returning to his song writing roots. Surrounded by ace players such as Peter Rowan, Norman Blake and Roy Huskey, it was nominated for a Grammy for best contemporary folk album and was the precursor to a trio of albums (‘I Feel Alright’, ‘El Corazon’ and ‘Transcendental Blues’) which many consider to be the highpoints of his now lengthy career.
While Earle has never shied away from this low point in his life in interviews, he has rarely sung about his addictions. An exception is ‘CCKMP’, from ‘I Feel Alright’. It’s perhaps his most harrowing recording, drawing from the delta blues and their long tradition of drug and drinking songs. It has an added poignancy these days, given the tragic story of Earle’s son, Justin.