Twelve years ago Steve Earle’s career got off to a roaring start—almost. Elvis Presley was in Nashville for a recording session, and first up on the mixing board was a song written by Earle, then 21. “But Elvis never left the hotel room,” Earle says. “And after three days of waiting for him to get ready to record, [the technicians] finally packed it up. Elvis had left a day earlier.”
Which left Earle’s career stalled at the get-go. Now, after a decade of barnstorming honky-tonks, Earle, 32, is sitting pretty. Last year Guitar Town, his album of hard luck, hard-rocking country tunes, went to No. 1 on the country charts, crossed over to the pop charts and got him named best country music artist in Rolling Stone’s 1986 critics’ poll. It also earned him a place alongside Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam in Nashville’s “new traditionalist” triumvirate. His Top 20 follow-up LP, Exit 0, released last June, is helping to banish further the doubts that assailed Earle during the lean years.
“One reason Guitar Town was so good is that it was my last chance,” he says. “I really, truly, don’t know how to do anything else, and if it failed I would’ve been in trouble, major trouble.” He recalls that his nerves “got to the point where I started having bad stage fright. It was partly because I’m wrapped pretty tight, and partly drugs, since I was pretty bad about playing in various states of inebriation. But mostly it was the stress of having to justify my existence in the world, which is pretty damn hard when you do something like this.”
Of course, failure is a lot tougher to justify than success, which Earle recently celebrated by getting his first credit card. “I’m upper middle class now,” he says. “It’s my first time above the poverty line.” He doesn’t think it will warp his musical sensibilities. “Stylistically,” he says, “I’m a country singer and always will be because I’ll always talk with this funny twang. But what I’m doing is by definition rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive terms. Never have been. Actually, what we’re talking about is not names of music, but names of radio formats.”
Earle’s country credentials are impressive enough. Born in Virginia and raised in Texas, he inherited his love for the road—as well as his meandering career pattern—from his father, an air traffic controller who liked to pack his five kids in the car for spur-of-the-moment weekend road trips. “He’d go driving out in the hill country, northwest of San Antonio, and just wander aimlessly,” Earle says. “When he’d come to a crossroad, each kid would get to pick a direction. Then when it started to get dark, he’d get out a map and figure out where he was.”
An eighth-grade dropout, Earle was inspired by the Beatles to look into songwriting: “They wrote their own material and that got me started reading those little lines and parentheses under songs.” With radio tutoring from Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, Earle hit the Texas coffeehouse circuit at 16, and by 19 was married and living in Nashville, where he worked odd jobs to support his songwriting habit before signing on as a staff writer for a Nashville publisher. Singer Johnny Lee recorded Earle’s When You Fall in Love in 1982, earning the writer $50,000. But “it was an empty experience,” Earle says. “It didn’t make me feel good. And that got me thinking about changes.”
Which is something of an understatement. Earle divorced, remarried, divorced again, remarried again and is currently awaiting his third divorce. “I feel bad about this kind of life and I’ve made mistakes,” he says. “But obviously I’m not afraid of commitments.”
Since the release of Guitar Town, Earle has been on the road almost constantly, performing 200 nights a year with his band, the Dukes. Off the road, he and fiancée Lou-Anne Gill, her daughter, Amy, 5, his son, Justin, 5, and the couple’s son, Ian, 7 months, live on Nashville’s Music Row, where they moved after an unhappy year in the suburbs. “I hated it out there,” Earle says. “I never ran into anybody weird at 7-Eleven.”
An enthusiastic “motorhead,” Earle, like the hero of an Exit 0 song called Sweet Little 66, is rebuilding a 1967 Chevelle SS-396. The car, he says, “is the fastest Chevelle in Tennessee, I promise you that.”
He may be right. After spending all those years in the pits, Earle probably knows a winner when he sees one.
—Written by Steve Dougherty, reported by Todd Gold