Hardcore Troubadour: The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle

Overview

If Steve Earle weren't a living, breathing person he'd be a character in a blues song, a raucous ballad that would tell the tale of a gifted rebel who drank too much, lost his career and almost all of his women in a blizzard of heroin and crack-cocaine addiction, and lived wildly and extravagantly on the wrong side of the law.

Along the way, Earle has welded rock to country, the Beatles to Springsteen, Celtic to Americana, punk to bluegrass and has produced multiple ...

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Overview

If Steve Earle weren't a living, breathing person he'd be a character in a blues song, a raucous ballad that would tell the tale of a gifted rebel who drank too much, lost his career and almost all of his women in a blizzard of heroin and crack-cocaine addiction, and lived wildly and extravagantly on the wrong side of the law.

Along the way, Earle has welded rock to country, the Beatles to Springsteen, Celtic to Americana, punk to bluegrass and has produced multiple Grammy-nominated albums and one enduring classic: Guitar Town. Like Hank Williams and Robert Johnson he has wandered across the American South; like Janis Joplin he has a huge capacity for self-destruction that matches an appetite for life in all its extremes. Like Stephen Foster, he is a storyteller and songwriter of rare skill and force whose sincerity echoes through all his work.

A heroin addict since the age of fourteen, six times married to five different women, a man who took a four-year 'vacation in the ghetto', Steve Earle none the less survived. And he came back with an artistic and personal vision intact, determined to change society for the better even as he seemed set to live his life for the worse.

Lauren St John has been allowed unrestricted access and cooperation by Steve, his family and friends. In exchange, she has written a hauntingly clear-eyed, unvarnished and uncompromising life of one of American music's talismanic sons.

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Editorial Reviews

St Louis Playback
“Fascinating reading...a riveting portrait.”
Time Out London
“A fascinating book…utterly compelling…heartfelt…insightful…and much recommended.”
Q Magazine
“Shockingly honest.”
Uncut (UK)
“If you love Steve Earle, you’ll buy this book. If not, get it anyway. It’s one helluva story.”
Sydney Morning Herald
“A sensitive and amusing book…the Earle material is particularly entertaining, confessional and full of wicked one-liners.”
Chicago Tribune
“A dark and compelling tale.”
Entertainment Weekly
“A no-holds barred portrait of a controversial artist who came back from the brink.”
Toronto Star
“Hardcore Troubadour offers intimate and accurate behind-the-scenes of the songwriter’s trials and tribulations....a fascinating new biography.”
Maxim
“Harrowing and inspirational.”
Booklist
“St John tells Earle’s story in grisly detail, thereby baring “the stuff that legends are made of.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Steve Earle deserves any attention he gets.”
Charlotte Observer
“St. John does a fantastic job...Earle’s story is a reminder that not all addict musicians burn out and die.”
San Antonio Express-News
“A sympathetic look at Earle..that doesn’t cover up any blemishes...an on-the-mark biography.”
James Sullivan
Acclaimed musician Earle has never quite achieved the superstardom many predicted for him. Not that he ever really wanted it. Earle might well be the consummate country maverick, and part of the profile is an utter disregard for conventional wisdom. In fact, the political rocker recently made some of the biggest headlines of his career with the release of "John Walker's Blues, " a calculated provocation that attempts to understand the motives behind the American Taliban. Earle has lived the equivalent of three or four mythical lives, making his forty-eight years on earth fertile territory for a biographer. Zimbabwe-born journalist St. John makes the most of Earle's peripatetic escapades with such fellow country outsiders as Townes Van Zandt and openly discusses her subject's devastating addictions to heroin and crack. For Earle, the truth is the most powerful drug of all, and he cooperates with his biographer throughout, recounting even his ugliest moments with no apparent qualms.
Publishers Weekly
This biography of country rocker Earle begins with him skipping a 1992 meeting with record execs to sign a potentially career-reviving, multimillion-dollar record contract. Instead, he sold his airplane ticket for $100 and went to score crack in the slums of Nashville, beginning what Earle calls his four-year "vacation in the ghetto." It's a brilliant opening hook, and St. John (Walkin' After Midnight) never lets the reader go, breezily guiding through Earle's wild childhood (he dropped out of school after the eighth grade and was living on his own by 16), his five tumultuous marriages, his many run-ins with the law, his restless wanderings through the American South and Mexico-and a quarter-century of addiction to booze, cocaine and heroin that finally ended after some jail time in the mid-1990s. By talking to many of Earle's closest friends, family and former wives, St. John manages to demythologize a man whose life often threatens to overshadow his music (unfortunately, however, she herself doesn't spend much time on Earle's actual recordings). She interprets Earle's death wish simply as an attempt to break away from his middle-class upbringing. Like his literary heroes Hemingway and Kerouac, he courts disaster to fuel his writing. As St. John writes, "It was no accident that his life was a series of belief-beggaring dramas; quite often he was the cause of them. Consciously or unconsciously, he cultivated his own legend." Springsteen may have been the "consummate chronicler of welfare-line blues," she writes, "but Steve had lived the life." (Feb.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Acclaimed singer/songwriter Earle granted St. John, a frequent contributor to the London Sunday Times, unrestricted access to write this unfliching portrait. Drawing on interviews with Earle as well as his friends and family (including six ex-wives), she traces the songwriter's life in gritty detail, from his childhood in rural Texas through his addictions, arrests, and breakups to his most recent triumphs. St. John also chronicles Earle's diverse musical influences, which range from Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark to Gram Parsons and Bruce Springsteen. When Earle's debut, Guitar Town, was released in 1986, he achieved success by reviving the pure sounds of legendary country musicians and combining it with the bluesy strains of rockabilly. Not long after the album's release, though, Earle began his slow descent into an inferno of drug abuse that nearly ended his life. After a four-year rut, Earle came roaring back to life with two flawless albums: El Corazon (1997) and Transcendental Blues (2000). On one hand, this first full-length portrait doesn't break any ground-the sordid aspects of Earle's life were already well documented. On the other, however, by using Earle's own words, St. John brings us closer to her subject's intimate relationship to music, which often gets overshadowed in the press. Ultimately, Earle emerges as a guy who wants to make damn good music. Recommended for all collections.-Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Worshipful, overlong biography of the singer-songwriter who first shook up Nashville with Guitar Town in 1986 and has been ruffling mainstream feathers ever since. Steve Earle is almost as famous for his reckless lifestyle and political activism as for biting songs like "Hillbilly Highway" and "John Walker." (Of this last, about the American indicted for fighting with the Taliban, Earle remarked with relish, "this will be the song that gets me kicked out of the country.") British journalist St. John (Shark: The Biography of Greg Norman, not reviewed, etc.), who met him in 1999 while he was campaigning against capital punishment, was clearly dazzled by the legendary Earle charisma. Though she chronicles in stupefying detail his years of drug addiction and dutifully quotes at length from injured siblings, several ex-wives, and various embittered former business associates, all of the musician’s extremely bad behavior is tinged with a patina of glamour: the artist sinking into the lower depths to fuel his art. Friend and foe alike describe Earle as a brilliant, nonstop talker, but you’d never know it from the self-serving remarks St. John chooses to print. Few admirers of the lyrics to "Copperhead Road" and "Devil’s Right Hand" will want to know that their author is capable of banalities like "When you’ve been married six times, you figure out that it’s at least partly your fault." The author adequately captures the exciting ferment of 1980s Nashville, when such idiosyncratic artists as Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Roseanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, and Townes Van Zandt shook country music to its core. But St. John has little to say about their music, and her rhapsodies about Earleare embarrassing. His thrilling, drug-free resurrection after a mid-’90s jail term to create some of the best recordings of his career does not require hyperbole like "In the history of incarceration, few men have returned to the outside world with such an overwhelming determination to embrace redemption, or with quite so much to offer the world, both personally and artistically." The ferociously intelligent and talented Earle deserves better than this fawning portrait.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780007149421
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/16/2003
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.39 (d)

Meet the Author

Lauren St. John is the author of Walkin’ After Midnight: A Journey To The Heart Of Nashville,a biography about Steve Earle, and four other biographies. She writes regularly for The Sunday Times and The Independent. She lives in London, England.

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First Chapter

Hardcore Troubadour
The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle

Chapter One

Life and Death in Texas

It was death that Jack Earle brushed in dreamy flights across America, though he never thought of it like that. Life lived too large in him. A strapping sixteen-year-old with big kind hands and the skin the colour of the iron-rich Texas earth, he looked down on the sweeping landscapes and felt invincible. There was a freedom about it. He loved to go up and bore holes in the virgin sky, to strike out into the unknown with a shaky compass. "The old aircraft always smelled of gasoline and dope, the paint that they used on the fabric. That smell -- I just lived for that smell. Terrify most people nowadays."

For the most part Jack had no idea where he was going, or how many rolls of masking tape it would take to get the plane he was collecting airborne when he arrived. Trade-A-Plane guided his destiny like some fifties astrological chart. The owner of the Jacksonville, Texas airfield where he spent his days (an old barnstormer on a motorbike) consulted the magazine on a monthly basis. Jack, who'd been obsessed by flying ever since he could remember and had cadged or worked for lessons until he'd earned his first solo flight at sixteen and his passenger license at seventeen, waited around the airfield in the hope that the old man would make a deal. If that happened, he'd send Jack and another boy to fetch the aircraft. They flew as far as Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ohio, and California, encountering planes they'd never seen or heard of, before figuring out how to fly them back. Jack's favorites were J-3 Piper Cubs and Aeronca Chiefs and Champs. Often the very fabric of the planes was worn out and starting to rot. The boys would patch them together with masking tape, kick the aged engines into life and go.

"We got real good at changing oil and unsticking valves. Those little airplanes, you'd have ones that had been sitting out in the field for two or three years without even starting. You'd throw in the oil, change it by hand about a jillion times, crank it up and clear all the birds' nests and cobwebs out of it and depart. And it was great. We thought nothing of it. Now I kinda shudder when I think."

Most of the aircraft were old and slow -- sixty-five horse-power or less. Jack reasoned that if one of them quit, he'd most likely have time to find a safe place to land. Only once did he ever see his young life flash before his eyes. He'd gone with a friend to see his then girlfriend Barbara at a Presbyterian church camp. Coming home, they hit a vulture. There was an explosion of feathers and a large section of the prop plummeted to earth. With the engine dangerously unbalanced, the terrified boys had no choice but to shut it down. Only then could they look for a place to land.

But even after that, Jack rarely gave a thought to the possible consequences of his obsession. He and his friends continued to get into anything with wings. "If it was an old dawg, that was okay too if the alternative was that we couldn't fly."


Jack had come hurrying into the world on December 22, 1933 when the doctor was held up by a train. Granny delivered him in the back of his father's convenience store. The third of four children, he was the great-grandson of Elijah Earle, the first Earle in Jacksonville. Elijah had migrated to East Texas from Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1840 with a wife and baby and a yoke of oxen. Beneath the unforgiving sun he'd cleared the land by hand and the simple log chapel he constructed still stands today. Elijah intended the church to be a gathering place for the people of all faiths, with Methodist Episcopalians having preference, as well as a community school. Now rebuilt and painted white, it stands proudly amid a grove of trees, its neat wooden pews brushed by the humid Texas breezes.

In 1932, Elijah's son, Albert Franklin, died, leaving eight children. Jack's father, Albert Milton, was the youngest. Known simply as Booster, he grew up connected to the land as if by an umbilical cord. When all the other children had grown and moved on, he continued to reside on the family farm, just a mile or so down the road from Earle's Chapel. The homestead in which he lived was an unpainted five-bedroom frame house with no indoor plumbing. In time it underwent various renovations but it remained intact until a tornado leveled it in 1987. Booster himself had the heart of an adventurer and a healthy entrepreneurial spirit. He was still a youngster when he began running a hamburger and chilli stand during the oil boom, moving from field to field with the ebb and flow of black gold. Another money-making opportunity arose when he and his friends caught a massive alligator on a nearby river. They charged ten cents a time for viewings. Then somebody had the bright idea of touring the country with it. The friends put it on the back of a truck and set off across America to get rich from their portable zoo. In Colorado, the traumatized creature finally expired. Unwilling to let go of their meal ticket, Booster continued to pretend the alligator was alive for another couple of days. Few people noticed the difference.

When Booster married a vibrant girl named Jewel Wall from Indian Gap, Texas, he put his adventuring days behind him. He worked the farm for many years and later for the Railway Express. His mother, Ammie, known simply as Granny, lived with the couple and ruled the roost. Shortly before Jack was born, Booster ploughed his savings into a service station and convenience store in Jacksonville ...

Hardcore Troubadour
The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle
. Copyright © by Lauren St John. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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  • Posted May 8, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    SKILLED AUTHOR

    I've read unauthorized accounts of the astonishing personal and incredible musical story of Steve Earl's life. I was particularly interested in reading this book because author Lauren St John was granted unrestricted and candid access to information by Steve Earl and his acquaintances. I imagined that such a book would be worth reading. It definitely was. St John did a fabulous and comprehensive job. If you know anything at all about Steve Earle you appreciate that being comprehensive about him is no small feat.

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