We were somewhat astonished while channel surfing Friday to see Nightline
devote a whole show to the remarkable Steve Earle.
If you don't know the name, Earle is a superb songwriter who basically went
to hell for about five years after becoming a heroin addict. He has
reclaimed not only his life but somewhat amazingly his gift has grown even
stronger. He's basically in the midst of a winning streak the likes of
which few artists achieve.
When we first became aware of him, he was getting a big buildup as a
country/rock alternative guy. This was some time ago, before his
addiction. He had at that point a rep as a superb songwriter and a
tremendous performer, but probably a reckless man as later everyone found out to
We learned a lot about him in that Nightline show, and it's probably safe to
place him squarely in the Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger/early Dylan tradition of
musical protest. He writes a lot of songs about guys who were in the
military in various wars, but almost all his war songs are Vietnam parables. He
is probably the finest musician writing about Vietnam. Songs like Copperhead
Road and Ben McCullough are as good an explanation about that experience as
you'll find in any form of communication.
Some of his songs about the cost he paid for his addiction are just searing -
CCKMP is terrifying, for instance.
Others are about outlaws and people who consciously make disastrous decisions
fully understanding the consequences. Lately he has started to write a
great deal in the Woody Guthrie tradition, as we mentioned earlier, and that has
led to songs about the death penalty, about the 96 election, and various other
things. In most people's hands this would be a career-ending fiasco, but
with Earle it leads to phenomenal songs.
On top of that, his love songs can be breathtaking. You're Still Standing
There is truly powerful. It's a post-rehab song about profound love and
But even after you consider the power of the personal hell songs, and the
socially conscious songs, and the love songs, when you get down to it, a lot of
songs are just, well, just cool. If you haven't listened to him, go buy a
CD or download some tracks. It's really nice to know, when popular music
seems to be totally in the ditch, that a guy like this is making not just good
music, but honest, passionate music, and that he's not only willing to make
political statements which we frankly get sick of in most celebrities, but makes
them in a compelling way which is impossible to dismiss.