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If Steve Earle weren't a living, breathing person, he'd be a character in a blues song a raucous ballad about a gifted rebel who drank too much, lost most of his women in a blizzard of crack and cocaine addiction, and always came out on the wrong side of the law. Somewhere in the midst of all this, he also managed to weld rock to country, the Beatles to Springsteen, and bluegrass to punk, establishing himself among the most thoroughly original and politically astute musicians of his generation. Granted unrestricted access to Steve and his family and friends, Lauren St John has given us a sometimes shocking, often moving, and completely unvarnished biography of one of America's most talismanic sons.
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About 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.
Read an Excerpt
The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle
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.
What People are Saying About This
“A wonderfully spirited and sympathetic new biography...Earle is a worthy successor to the alltime greats of American music.”
“Meticulously researched and wellwritten...captures the heart and soul of one of America’s most talented, troubled, and controversial songwriters.”
“An intimate and intelligent biography of an artist who—like all the greats—ain’t ever satisfied.”