Stephen Fain "Steve" Earle (/ˈɜrl/) (born January 17, 1955) is an American singer-songwriter, record producer, author and actor. Earle grew up near San Antonio, Texas, and began learning the guitar at age 11. Earle began his career as a songwriter in Nashville and released his first EP in 1982. His breakthrough album was the 1986 album Guitar Town. Since then Earle has released 13 other studio albums and received three Grammy awards. His songs have been recorded by Waylon Jennings, Travis Tritt, Vince Gill, Shawn Colvin and Emmylou Harris. He has appeared in film and television, and has written a novel, a play, and a book of short stories.
Earle was born in Fort Monroe, Virginia, and grew up near San Antonio, Texas. His father, Jack Earle, was an air traffic controller. Although he was born in Virginia where his father was stationed, the family returned to Texas before Earle's second birthday. They moved several times but Earle grew up primarily in the San Antonio area.
Earle began learning the guitar at the age of 11 and placed in a talent contest at his school at age 13. He is reported to have run away from home at age 14 to follow his idol, singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt around Texas. Earle was "rebellious" as a youngster and dropped out of school at the age of 16. He moved to Houston with his 19-year-old uncle, who was also a musician, where he married and worked odd jobs. While in Houston Earle finally met Van Zandt, who became his hero and role model.
1974 to 1999
In 1974 at the age of 19 Earle moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and began working blue-collar jobs during the day and playing music at night. During this period Earle wrote songs and played bass guitar in Guy Clark's band and on Clark's 1975 album Old No. 1. Earle appeared in the 1975 film Heartworn Highways, a documentary on the Nashville music scene which included Guy Clark, Townes van Zandt and Rodney Crowell. Earle lived in Nashville for several years and assumed the position of staff songwriter at the publishing company Sunbury Dunbar. Later Earle grew tired of Nashville and returned to Texas where he started a band called The Dukes.
In the 1980s Earle returned to Nashville once again and worked as a songwriter for the publishers Roy Dea and Pat Clark. A song he co-wrote, "When You Fall in Love", was recorded by Johnny Lee and made number 14 on the country charts in 1982.Carl Perkins recorded Earle's song "Mustang Wine", and two of his songs were recorded by Zella Lehr. Later Dea and Clark created an independent record label called LSI and invited Earle to began recording his own material on their label.
Earle released an EP called, Pink & Black, in 1982 featuring the Dukes. Acting as Earle's manager John Lomax "sent the EP to Epic Records" and they "signed Earle" to a recording contract in 1983. In 1983 Earle signed a record deal with CBS and recorded a "neo-rockabilly album".
After losing his publishing contract with Dea and Carter, Earle met producer Tony Brown and after severing his ties with Lomax and Epic Records obtained a seven record deal with MCA Records. Earle released his first full length album, Guitar Town, on MCA Records in 1986. The title track became a Top Ten single in 1986 and his song "Goodbye's All We've Got Left" reached the Top Ten in 1987. That same year he released a compilation of earlier recordings entitled, Early Tracks, and an album with the Dukes, called Exit 0, which "received critical acclaim" for its blend of country and rock. Earle released Copperhead Road on Uni Records in 1989 which was characterized as "a quixotic project that mixed a lyrical folk tradition with hard rock and eclectic Irish influences such as The Pogues, who guested on the record". The album's title track portrays a Vietnam veteran who turns into a marijuana grower/dealer. Then Earle began "three years in a mysterious vaporization" according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
His 1990 album The Hard Way had a strong rock sound and was followed by "a shoddy live album" called Shut Up and Die Like An Aviator. In August 1991 Earle appeared on the TV show The Texas Connection "looking pale and blown out". In light of Earle's "increasing drug use" MCA Records did not renew his contract and Earle didn't record any music for the next four years. By July 1993 Earle was reported to have regained his normal weight and had started to write new material. At that time a writer for the Chicago Sun-Times called Earle "a visionary symbol of the New Traditionalist movement in country music."
In 1994, two staff members at Warner/Chappell publishing company, and Earle's former manager, John Dotson, created an in-house CD of Earle's songs entitled Uncut Gems and showcased it to some recording artists in Nashville. This resulted in several of Earle's songs being recorded by Travis Tritt, Stacy Dean Campbell and Robert Earl Keen. After his recording hiatus, Earle released Train a Comin' on Winter Harvest Records and it was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1996. The album was characterized as a return to the "folksy acoustic" sound of his early career. In 1996 Earle formed his own record label, E-Squared Records, and released the album, I Feel Alright, which combined the musical sounds of country, rock and rockabilly. Earle released the album El Corazon (The Heart) in 1997 which one reviewer called "the capstone of this [Earle's] remarkable comeback".
According to Earle, he wrote the song "Over Yonder" about a death row inmate with whom he exchanged letters before attending his execution in 1998. Earle made a foray into bluegrass influenced music in 1999 when he released the album, The Mountain with the Del McCoury Band. In 2000, Earle recorded his album Transcendental Blues.
2000 to present
Earle presented excerpts of his poetry and fiction writing at the 2000 New Yorker Festival. His collection of short stories called Doghouse Roses was published in June 2011 and his novel, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive was published in the spring of 2011. Earle wrote and produced an off Broadway play about the death of Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed since the death penalty was reinstated in Texas.
In the early 2000s Earle's album, Jerusalem expressed his anti-war, anti-death penalty and his other "leftist views". The album's song John Walker's Blues, about the captured American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh created controversy. Earle responded by appearing on a variety of news and editorial programs and defended the song and his views on patriotism and terrorism. Earle's subsequent tour, featured the Jerusalem album and was released as the live album Just an American Boy in 2003. In 2004, Earle released the album, The Revolution Starts Now, a collection of songs influenced by the Iraq war and the policies of the George W. Bush administration and won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album. The title song was used by General Motors in a TV advertisement. The album was released during the U.S. presidential campaign to encourage Earle's fans to vote for John Kerry. The song "The Revolution Starts Now" was used in the promotional materials for Michael Moore's anti-war documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11 and appears on the album Songs and Artists That Inspired Fahrenheit 9/11. That year, Earle was the subject of a documentary DVD called Just An American Boy.
In 2006, Earle contributed a cover of Randy Newman's song "Rednecks" to the tribute album Sail Away: The Songs of Randy Newman. Earle hosted a radio show on Air America from August 2004 until June 2007. Later he began hosting a show called Hardcore Troubadour on the Outlaw Country channel. Earle is also the subject of two biographies, Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet, by David McGee and Hardcore Troubadour: The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle by Lauren St. John.
In September 2007, Earle released his twelfth studio album, Washington Square Serenade, on New West Records. Earle recorded the album after relocating to New York City, and was his first use of digital audio recording. The disc features Earle's wife, Allison Moorer, on "Days Aren't Long Enough" and "Down Here Below." The album includes Earle's version of Tom Waits' song "Way Down in the Hole" which was the theme song for the fifth season of The Wire in which Earle appeared as the character Walon. In 2008, Earle produced Joan Baez's album Day After Tomorrow. (Prior to their collaboration on Day After Tomorrow, Baez had covered two Earle songs, "Christmas in Washington" and "Jerusalem," on previous albums.) In the winter, he toured Europe and North America in support of Washington Square Serenade, performing both solo and with a disc jockey. On May 12, 2009, Earle released a tribute album, Townes, on New West Records. The album contained 15 songs written by Townes Van Zandt. Guest artists appearing on the album included Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Moorer, and his son Justin. The album earned Earle a 3rd Grammy award, again for best contemporary folk album.
In 2010 Earle was awarded the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty's Shining Star of Abolition award. Earle has recorded two other anti-death penalty songs: "Billy Austin," and "Ellis Unit One" for the 1995 film Dead Man Walking.
Earle released his first novel and fourteenth studio album, both entitled I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive after a Hank Williams song, in the spring of 2011. The album was released on April 26, 2011 and was produced by T-Bone Burnett and deals with questions of mortality with a "more country" sound than his earlier work. During the second half of his 2011 tour with The Dukes and Duchesses and Moorer, the drum kit was adorned with the slogan "we are the 99%" a reference to the occupy movement of September 2011.
Earle has had a mix of appearances in television and movies ranging from cameos to full roles. His music is often used in the sound tracks for these works. Earle portrayed Walon, a recovering drug addict and counselor in several episodes of the HBO television series The Wire. Earle's song "I Feel Alright" was played at the closing of season two. Earle's version of the Tom Waits song, "Way Down in the Hole" was also used as season 5's opening theme. Earle played a drug dealer in Tim Blake Nelson's 2009 movie Leaves of Grass and a musician in the HBO series Treme. Earle's song "This City" can be heard over the closing credits of the first season finale. He was also one of several musicians who sang a mock charity appeal in the final episode of Season 3 of 30 Rock. Earle appeared in the 2008 political documentary Slacker Uprising.
Earle has been married seven times, including twice to the same woman. He married Sandra "Sandy" Henderson in Houston at the age of 18, but left her to move to Nashville a year later where he met and married his second wife, Cynthia Dunn. Earle married his third wife, Carol-Ann Hunter, who gave birth to his son, singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle. Next, he married Lou-Anne Gill (with whom he had a second son) and then his fifth wife, Teresa Ensenat, who was an artist for Geffen Records at the time. Earle then married Lou-Anne Gill a second time, and finally, in 2005, married singer-songwriter Allison Moorer with whom he had a child in April 2010.
In 1993 Earle was arrested for possession of heroin and in 1994, for cocaine and "weapons possession". A judge sentenced him to a year in jail after he admitted possession and failed to appear in court. Earle was released from jail after serving 60 days of his sentence. Earle then completed an outpatient drug treatment program at the Cedarwood Center in Hendersonville, Tennessee. As a recovering heroin addict, Earle has used his experience in his songwriting.
Earle's sister, Stacey Earle, is also a musician and songwriter.
Earle has spoken out about politics and is an opponent of capital punishment which he considers his primary area of political activism.
In March 2014, Earle announced that he and Moorer had separated.
Songs in film and TV
Steve Earle's songs have appeared in many major motion pictures and television as writer and performer.
As performer and writer
- The Beverly Hillbillies (1993) ("Honey Don't")
- Dead Man Walking (1995) ("Ellis Unit One")
- The Horse Whisperer (1998) ("Me and the Eagle")
- Pay It Forward (2000) ("Open Your Window")
- You Can Count on Me (2000) ("I'm Still In Love With You", "Harlan Man", "Texas Eagle", "The Mountain", "Pilgrim")
- The Pledge (2001) ("The Other Side of Town")
- Last Party 2000 (also known as The Party's Over) (2001) ("Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)")
- Big Bad Love (2001) ("Goodbye")
- The Rookie (2002) ("Some Dreams")
- Stevie (2002) ("I Ain't Ever Satisfied")
- The Wire (2004) ("I Feel Alright"), ("Down in the Hole" as performer only, written by Tom Waits)
- Silver City (2004) ("Amerika v. 6.0")
- Brokeback Mountain (2005) ("Devil's Right Hand")
- Talladega Nights (2006) ("Valentine's Day", "Hard-Core Troubadour", "I Feel Alright")
- The Guardian (2006) ("Home To Houston")
- Bridge to Terabithia (2007) ("Someday")
- The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (2007) ("Nothing But A Child")
- Friday Night Lights (2009) ("Hard-core Troubadour", "Goodbye")
- Leaves of Grass (2009) ("Lonely Are the Free")
- Treme (2010) ("This City")
- Moonshiners (2011) ("Copperhead Road")
- Sgt. Bilko (1996) ("Sometimes She Forgets")
- G.I. Jane (1997) ("Goodbye")
- P.S. I Love You (2007) ("The Galway Girl")
Nominations and awards
- Earle has received fourteen nominations and three Grammy Awards.
- 2012 Nominated "Best Folk Album" for I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive.
- 2010 Won "Best Contemporary Folk Album" for Townes.
- 2008 Won "Best Contemporary Folk Album" for Washington Square Serenade.
- 2005 Won "Best Contemporary Folk Album" for The Revolution Starts...Now.
- 2005 Nominated “Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance” for The Revolution Starts...Now.
- 2003 Nominated "Best Contemporary Folk Album" for Jerusalem.
- 2001 Nominated "Best Contemporary Folk Album" for Transcendental Blues.
- 2000 Nominated "Best Bluegrass Album" for The Mountain with the Del McCoury Band.
- 1999 Nominated "Best Contemporary Folk Album" for El Corazón.
- 1996 Nominated "Best Contemporary Folk Album" for Train A Comin'. (Lost in 1996 to Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which Earle co-produced.)
- 1988 Nominated "Best Country Male Vocalist" for Exit 0.
- 1988 Nominated "Best Country Song" for “Nowhere Road”.
- 1987 Nominated "Best Country Male Vocalist" for Guitar Town.
- 1987 Nominated "Best Country Song" for “Guitar Town”.
- He was named Country Artist of the Year for 1986 by Rolling Stone magazine.
- In 2004, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award for songwriting by the UK's BBC Radio 2.
- In July 2010, Earle was nominated for an Emmy Award in the Music and Lyrics category, for the song "This City," which was written for the television series Tremé.
- On May 13, 2011, Earle was granted an honorary degree from the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law.
- Recorded and performed "Johnny Come Lately" with The Pogues.
- Performed a duet with Iris DeMent on "I'm Still In Love With You".
- Co-wrote the Jason & the Scorchers song "A Bible & A Gun".
- Sang on Jason Ringenberg's re-recording of "A Bible & A Gun" (2002).
- Worked with the Supersuckers, recording their song "Creepy Jackalope Eye" and his song "NYC" (1996).
- Released split single of the Rolling Stones song "Before They Make Me Run" with the Supersuckers (1997).
- Sang backup vocals and played the harmonica on the Indigo Girls song "Shame on You", on their album Shaming of the Sun (1997).
- Recorded "The Galway Girl" and "Dominick Street" with Sharon Shannon and The Woodchoppers.
- Recorded covers of Alejandro Escovedo's "Paradise" and Warren Zevon's "Reconsider Me" with Reckless Kelly, for Escovedo and Zevon tribute albums.
- Collaborated with the Del McCoury Band on The Mountain (1999).
- Performed a duet with Lucinda Williams on "You're Still Standin' There".
- Performed a duet with Chris Hillman on "High Fashion Queen" for the Gram Parsons tribute album Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons.
- Performed a duet with Siobhan Maher Kennedy on "Poison Lovers".
- Performed a duet with Emmylou Harris on "Comin' Around", "Goodbye", and "I Remember You".
- Performed a duet with Stacey Earle on "When I Fall".
- Played guitar and sang backup on Emmylou Harris's version of "Goodbye" (from her Wrecking Ball album.)
- Co-wrote "Go Amanda" with Sheryl Crow (on Jerusalem).
- Sang with Sheryl Crow on his cover of "Time Has Come Today" on Sidetracks.
- Covered the Son Volt classic "Windfall"
- Played banjo on Patti Smith's cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit".
- Produces and collaborates on Joan Baez's album Day After Tomorrow.
- Performed a duet with Jill Sobule on her song "Love is Never Equal"
- Covered NRBQ's "A Girl Like That" on the NRBQ tribute album The Q People (2004).
- Performed with Allison Moorer on the song "After The Fire Is Gone" from Coal Miner's Daughter: A Tribute To Loretta Lynn (2010).
- Schone, Mark. (1998). "Steve Earle." In The Encyclopedia of Country Music. Paul Kingsbury, Ed. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 160–1.
- St John, Lauren. Hardcore Troubadour: The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle, Fourth Estate, 2002 ISBN 1-84115-611-6
- at the Internet Movie Database
First Amendment Center/AMA "Spirit of Americana" Free Speech Award