Steve Earle Biography
Last updated: 05/05/2012 11:00:00 AM
Stephen Fain Earle was born on 17 January 1955 in Ft. Monroe, Virginia, where his father was stationed as an air traffic controller. When Steve's due date approached, a family member was selected and sent to Virginia with a small Prince Albert tobacco tin of Lone Star dirt from the family farm. Grandmama said the dirt was spread in a flat pan and the little fellow was held up and his feet imprinted in the Texas dirt. While the family had to accept that his birth certificate said Virginia, Steve's granddaddy and uncles were satisfied that the first soil his feet ever touched was Texan.
Steve's birth was followed by the births of two brothers and two sisters.
Steve, the eldest child of Jack and Barbara Thomas Earle, grew up in Schertz, Texas, which is 17 miles north of San Antonio, with younger siblings Mark, Kelly, Stacey, and Pat.
Steve got his first guitar at age 11, and in two years had mastered the instrument to the point where he was able to place third in the Schertz school district's annual talent show.
At 14, Steve left home for Houston to join his uncle Nick Fain, who was only 19 himself at the time. Nick encouraged Steve's guitar playing and soon after, Steve met Townes Van Zandt, who inspired him to make music his career. (Steve later commented on TVZ... "He was a real good teacher and a real bad role model.") At 19, Steve made his way to Nashville.
Before he left Texas, Steve attended O. G. Weiderstein elementary school, O. Henry Junior High School, made a short appearance at Holmes High School, and had his second theatrical debut in The World Of Carl Sandburg. Steve didn't leave high school before making friends with some others who were caught somewhere between the "kicker" (who wore western clothes, boots, were squeaky clean, did rodeo [or pretended to]) and "surfer" (the kids who wore 'cool clothes' like pegged down hip huggers, crop tops, and love beads... the guys wore bell bottomed pants, t-shirts and wore their hair as long as the school establishment would allow) factions. Bubba, a recurring character in Steve's songs, is apparently a composite of these friends.
While struggling in the music industry, Steve paid the bills by taking on odd jobs. "I've never had a job longer than three months in my life. I've always led a bohemian lifestyle. I have framed houses, worked on oil rigs, worked on shrimp boats and in restaurants, but it was different for me because I knew I was always going to get out". Steve worked offshore for a month. "I came back with the most money I'd ever had in my life and I got in the most trouble I'd ever gotten into my life", he recalls.
In Nashville, Steve played in various bands to support himself. Steve's first known professional recording was with Guy Clark on Guy's 1975 album Old No. 1. Steve sang back-up vocals (along with Rodney Crowell, Sammy Smith, and Emmylou Harris ["The first time I met Emmylou, she came in to sing on Guy Clark's first album. She gave me half of her cheeseburger. I wasn't the same for weeks."]) on the song Desperados Waiting For A Train. Steve toured with Guy from early '75 until late '76. Steve also may have appeared in Robert Altman's 1975 film, Nashville (he was part of a large crowd scene in Centennial Park, but it's not clear whether he actually shows up in the film).
Steve eventually wrote songs that were recorded by some major musical players at the time. After landing his first publishing deal with Sunbury Dunbar (a division of RCA) in November '75 (he was with them until '78), he received $75 per week draw as a staff writer.
Steve almost had a song, Mustang Wine, recorded by Elvis Presley in 1975... but Elvis never showed up for the session. The song was recorded by Carl Perkins the next year, and Johnny Lee had a Top 10 hit in 1982 with When You Fall In Love, a song that Steve co-wrote with John Scott Sherrill.
From 1982-1985, Steve recorded some rockabilly tracks for Epic, but Epic did a poor job promoting him and the singles had little success. The songs from a 7" vinyl EP released in 1982, Pink & Black, later showed up in the post-Guitar Town (1986) frenzy as Early Tracks (1987). Epic wasn't totally stupid — better late than never. The songs, in the rockabilly genre, reinforced Steve's reputation as an accomplished songwriter.
Guitar Town garnered glowing reviews and commercial success and brought Steve his first two Grammy nominations: 1997's Best Country Male Vocalist (for the album) and Best Country Song (Guitar Town). Steve was also named 1986's Country Artist Of The Year in Rolling Stone Magazine's Critics Poll.
In 1987, the critically acclaimed Exit 0 was released. I Ain't Ever Satisfied gained some rock air play, but that made the country radio stations skittish and the single released to that market, Nowhere Road, wasn't given much of a chance. The album resulted in Steve's third and fourth Grammy nominations: 1988's Best Country Male Vocalist (for the album) and Best Country Song (Nowhere Road).
Copperhead Road followed in 1988 and represented a sharper turn towards rock. The album's only commercial U.S. single was Copperhead Road, which was targeted exclusively to rock radio. Other promotional-only singles (Nothing But A Child, Even When I'm Blue, and Back To The Wall) were released in the U.S., but never marketed with any real conviction. A better effort was made in the U.K., which released commercial singles of Copperhead Road, Back To The Wall, and a rare 3" CD single of Johnny Come Lately.
An equally hard-sounding The Hard Way was released in 1990 and had one UK single released, Justice in Ontario. The live recording Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator followed in 1991 and was the last album of Steve's contract with MCA. The label chose not to renew his contract when it expired due to the escalating severity of his long-standing drug problem. What followed was a four year creative draught and Steve virtually disappeared from the music scene.
Steve was arrested and sent to prison for possession of narcotics, which, ironically, may have ultimately saved his life. He successfully completed a rehab program and was paroled in late 1994.
During Steve's break from recording, which he calls his "vacation in the ghetto", Barbara Behler (of Warner-Chappell), John Dotson (Steve's manager at the time), and Mark Brown (also with Warner-Chappell) compiled the promotional CD Uncut Gems and shopped it around to other recording artists in Nashville. The CD was an excellent compilation of some otherwise unknown and unrecorded Steve Earle songs and resulted in artists like Travis Tritt and Stacy Dean Campbell recording Sometimes She Forgets and Robert Earl Keen, Jr. recording Tom Ames' Prayer.
Train A Comin' came out in early 1995 and is a collection of Steve's own mostly-older acoustic compositions plus some favorite covers. "This is exactly the record I needed to make right now... no major label would let me make this record, especially coming back after four years. I always wanted to do it. It was a low pressure record, at a point in my life when I needed a low pressure record." The album was nominated for a 1996 Grammy in the Contemporary Folk album category (Steve's fifth Grammy nomination).
I Feel Alright followed in March 1996 on Steve's own label (co-owned with Jack Emerson), E-Squared, and is a mix of country, rock, and rockabilly.
El Corazón was released late 1997 on E-Squared and was nominated for a 1999 Grammy in the Contemporary Folk Album category (Steve's sixth Grammy nomination).
The Mountain, a bluegrass album recorded with the Del McCoury Band and was released on E-Squared in February 1999 and was nominated for a 2000 Grammy in the Best Bluegrass Album category (Steve's seventh Grammy nomination). Two singles were released in the UK: Dixieland (distributed to radio only) and The Mountain (a commercial release).
Transcendental Blues, an album with a mix of rock, bluegrass, and Irish music was released on E-Squared/Artemis in June 2000 and was nominated for a 2001 Grammy in the Contemporary Folk album category (Steve's eighth Grammy nomination). Three singles were released to radio (no commercial releases): Transcendental Blues, I Can Wait, and Everyone's In Love With You in the US. A remixed version of The Galway Girl, recorded with Sharon Shannon, was commercially released in the UK as a single. (The song also appears on her 2001 album, The Diamond Mountain Sessions.)
Doghouse Roses, a collection of 11 short stories, was published in June 2001 in the US and July 2001 in the UK.
Steve has been married six times – to Sandra (Sandy) Henderson, Cynthia Dunn, Carol Hunter, Lou-Anne Gill, Maria Teresa Ensenat, and again to Lou-Anne. Steve has three children – two sons (Justin [mom is Carol] and Ian [mom is Lou]), and his step-daughter Amy [the daughter of Lou].
Steve's mom and dad are now living in Nashville. Steve's brother, Mark, is living in Lubbock, Texas. The youngest Earle, Patrick, is living near Nashville and tours with Steve as part of his crew. Steve's sister, Kelly, lives near Boston. Steve's youngest sister, Stacey, lives in Ashland City, Tennessee with her husband, Mark Stuart [Stacey and Mark are both former members of the Dukes] and Stacey and Mark both have their own recording careers in Nashville.
– Lisa Kemper