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Music / Steve Earle

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He's just singing the same old song
That he always sang before
He's the last of the hardcore troubadours

Stephen Fain Earle (born January 17, 1955 in Fort Monroe, Virginia) is an OutlawCountry/Alternative Country singer/songwriter, actor, and author. After about 10 years of hanging around his favorite musicians in Texas and Tennessee (he turns up in the 1975 documentary Heartworn Highways), he finally got his breakthrough in 1986 with the album Guitar Town and became something of a country rock star.

It didn't end well.

After weaning himself off crack and heroin in the mid-90s he returned with a beard and a slightly more mature sound and has been writing and recording a lot ever since. He lives in New York City.

Earle's music tends to draw on a lot of different influences, including country, Rock & Roll, folk music, punk, and even Hip-Hop. In the 1980s, Earle's music gained considerable popularity with alternative, folk and punk fans, and he is considered to be extremely influential on the development of the Alternative Country genre. A self-described socialist, Earle is very politically active in left-wing causes, which often shows up in his lyrics.

In addition to recording and touring, he's also an acclaimed author with one story collection (Doghouse Roses) and one novel (I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive) under his belt, and has done some acting, most notably in the David Simon-helmed TV series The Wire (in which his cover of Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole" was the Season 5 theme) and Treme.

Father of the late Justin Townes Earle.


  • Guitar Town (1986)
  • Exit 0 (1987, with The Dukes)
  • Copperhead Road (1988)
  • The Hard Way (1990)
  • Train a Comin' (1995)
  • I Feel Alright (1996)
  • El Corazón (1997)
  • The Mountain (1999, with the Del McCoury Band)
  • Transcendental Blues (2000)
  • Jerusalem (2002)
  • The Revolution Starts Now (2004)
  • Washington Square Serenade (2007)
  • Townes (2009)
  • I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive (2011)
  • The Low Highway (2013)
  • Terraplane (2015)
  • Colvin & Earle (2016, with Shawn Colvin)
  • So You Wanna Be an Outlaw (2017)
  • Guy (2019)
  • Ghosts of West Virginia (2020)
  • J.T. (2021)

Tropes associated with Steve Earle and his works:

  • After the End: "Ashes to Ashes" forecasts this in the last verse.
    Now, nobody lives forever, nothing stands the test of time
    Oh, you've heard 'em say "never say never", but it's always best to keep it in mind
    That every tower ever built tumbles, no matter how strong, no matter how tall
    Someday even great walls'll crumble, every idol ever raised falls
    Someday even man's best-laid plans will lie twisted and covered in rust
    We done all that we can but it slipped through our hands and it's ashes to ashes and dust to dust
  • Alternative Country: One of the Trope Codifiers. Earle made his name by playing to both country and alt-rock audiences, including a stint opening for The Replacements in the 1980s.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: The first verse of "Copperhead Road" doesn't make it clear whether it's the revenue man or John's granddad that never came back from Copperhead Road.
  • Bowdlerize: "Guitar Town" had "37 dollars and a Jap guitar" changed to "cheap guitar" on the radio edit.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: "F The CC"
  • Company Town: One of these is mentioned as the location of a card game in "Devils Right Hand".
  • Cover Album: Townes consists entirely of Townes Van Zandt songs.
  • Dramatic Drop: From "Devil's Right Hand":
    So I asked if I could have one someday when I grew up
    Mama dropped a dozen eggs, she really blew up
  • Drugs Are Bad: "CCKMP"note  seems to be this until the final verse.
    Heroin's the only thing
    The only gift that darkness brings
    Guess you best leave me alone...
  • Everything's Louder with Bagpipes: "Copperhead Road"
  • For the Evulz: Deconstructed in "Billy Austin".
    The kid done like I told him, he lay face down on the floor
    Guess I'll never know what made me turn and walk back through that door
    The shot rang out like thunder, my ears rang like a bell
    No one came runnin' so I called the cops myself
    Took their time to get there and I guess I coulda run
    I knew I should be feeling something but I never shed tear one
    I didn't even make the papers 'cause I only killed one man...
  • From Camouflage to Criminal: "Copperhead Road" is the story of John Lee Pettimore, who follows in his grandfather's (a moonshiner) and father's (a bootlegger) footsteps after serving two tours in 'Nam by starting up an illegal drugs plantation on the titular road.
  • Gambling Brawl: happens in "The Devil's Right Hand":
    Got into a card game in a company town
    I caught a miner cheating, I shot the dog down
    I shot the dog down, I watched the man fall
    He never touched his holster, never had a chance to draw
  • The Gunfighter Wannabe: "Devil's Right Hand"
  • Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook: A common theme in Earle's songs. An example from "The Truth":
    For every wall you build around your fear
    A thousand darker things are born in here
    And they're fed on contempt for all that you hold dear
  • Hell Has New Management: "The Unrepentant" ends like this.
    Now he's standin' at Hell's door
    With a bad attitude and a .44
    The devil said, "What's up man, now what you come here for?"
    He said, "Man, let's just get to it"
    He said, "I always heard that you were the bad one
    There's a few places I ain't been, a few things I ain't done
    You got your pitchfork and I got my gun..."
  • He's Back!: The title track from I Feel Alright, his first full-band album after quitting drugs, is entirely this.
    Now some of you would live through me, lock me up and throw away the key
    Or just find a place to hide away, hope that I'll just go away - HAH!
    I feel alright, I feel alright tonight
  • Hillbilly Moonshiner: The grandfather in "Copperhead Road".
  • It Runs in the Family: "Copperhead Road" is the story of three generations of modern outlaws - the grandfather was a Hillbilly Moonshiner, the father smuggled whiskey, and the son is a Vietnam vet growing marijuana.
  • Kangaroo Court: "Justice in Ontario":
    It was down in London, they were tried
    And the guilty man stood free outside
    When he took the stand to pay his debt
    The judge was blind and the jury deaf
  • Last Note Hilarity: "Snake Oil" ends with "I knew there was a first-taker on this album somewhere".
  • Mistaken Identity: The narrator of "Taneytown" is a young black man who is accosted by a group of racists and barely escapes by slashing one of them with his pocketknife. He throws the knife away while running back to his house, another black boy picks it up, and is later lynched when the men see him with it, despite protesting he didn't hurt anyone.
  • Narrator All Along: "Johnny-Come-Lately" seems like it's an American GI in London recounting how he met his wife during the Blitz; the final verse reveals it's his grandson remembering the story as he returns from Vietnam to no fanfare whatsoever.
  • One Riot, One Ranger: "Justice in Ontario"
    It was the local police who made the call.
    They said "Send us Corporal Terry Hall."
  • Outliving One's Offspring: His son Justin died in August 2020. He actually recorded a tribute album named J.T. in his son's memory.
  • Prayer Is a Last Resort: Subverted in "Tom Ames' Prayer", about a bankrobber who finds himself "trapped in an alley in Abilene with all but four shells spent" and turns to God for the first time in his life... only to wind up bragging at length about that time he saved himself from hanging and concluding:
    "Yeah, but who the hell am I talkin' to, there ain't no one here but me."
  • Protest Song: Many, ranging from the Anvilicious to Tear Jerker, occasionally even in the same song. Topics include:
    • The death penalty: "Billy Austin", Ellis Unit One", "Over Yonder"
    • The war on terrorism: "John Walker's Blues", "Rich Man's War"
    • Corporate America: "Amerika v6.0", "Christmastime In Washington", "The Revolution Starts Now"
    • Immigration: "City Of Immigrants"
  • Real Song Theme Tune: At least 2 of Earles' recordings have ended up as television music.
    • His Cover Version of Tom Waits' "Way Down In The Hole" is used for the fifth season of The Wire; Earle had a recurring role that season as Walon, Bubbles' Narcotics Anonymous sponsor. (Earle had appeared as Walon a few times in Season 1 and once in Season 4, but he wasn't nearly as prominent as in Season 5, which is when Bubbles gets serious about recovery.) "Copperhead Road" was featured on the Discovery Channel's docudrama: "Moonshiners".
  • Record Producer: He and Ray Kennedy (who had a hit in 1991 with "What a Way to Go") produce for himself and others as "Twang Trust".
  • Recovered Addict: Both Steve in real life, as well as his character Walon in The Wire.
  • Religion Rant Song: "Tom Ames' Prayer" is about a bank robber who finds himself "trapped in an alley in Abilene with all but four shells spent" and turns to God for the first time in his life... only to wind up bragging at length about that time he saved himself from hanging and concluding:
    "Yeah, but who the hell am I talkin' to, there ain't no one here but me."
  • Returning War Vet: "Johnny Come Lately"
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: "Copperhead Road".
    Now the DEA's got a chopper in the air, I wake up screaming like I'm back over there.
  • Small Town Boredom: Shows up in a few of his songs, most notably "Someday".
    They ask me how far into Memphis, son, and where's the nearest beer
    And they don't even know that there's a town around here.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: The subject of the Snake Oil is this. Though there is a strong possibility the sales department is staffed by corrupt politician(s).