Muddy Bottom Blues
Program #184 (August 9 at 8:00 p.m. and August 10 at 3:00 p.m.)
Born in Fort Monroe, Virginia, but raised near San Antonio, Texas, Steve Earle received his first guitar at the age of 11 and, by the time he was 13, had become proficient enough to win a school-sponsored talent contest. Despite his talent for music, he proved to be a wild child, often getting in trouble with local authorities. Furthermore, his rebellious, long-haired appearance and anti-Vietnam War stance was scorned by local country fans.
After completing the eighth grade, Earle dropped out of school and, at the age of 16, left home with his uncle Nick Fain to travel across the state. Eventually, he settled in Houston at the age of 18, where he married his first wife, Sandie, and began working odd jobs. While in Houston, he met singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who would become Earle's foremost role model and inspiration. A year later, Earle moved to Nashville.
Earle worked blue-collar jobs during the day in Nashville; at night, he wrote songs and played bass in Guy Clark's backing band, appearing on a cut on Clark's 1975 album Old No. 1. He stayed in Nashville for several years, making connections within the industry and eventually landing a job as a staff writer for the publisher Sunbury Dunbar.
He eventually grew tired of the city, however, and returned to Texas, where he assembled a backing band called the Dukes and began playing local clubs. A year later, he returned to Nashville, where he married his second wife, Cynthia. The marriage was short-lived and he quickly married Carol, who gave birth to Earle's first child, a son named Justin Townes Earle. Carol helped straighten Earle out, at least temporarily; for a while, he cut back on substances and concentrated on music.
Earle's first release was an EP, Pink & Black, issued in 1982. The record featured a formative version of the Dukes and found a warm reception among critics, one of whom -- John Lomax -- sent the EP to Epic Records. Impressed with the songs, Epic signed Earle in 1983; meanwhile, Lomax became his manager.
After releasing "Nothin' But You" as a single, however, Epic sat on the song and refused to promote the record. They concentrated on their new signing instead, and relations between Earle and his label began to sour. Earle then entered the studio and cut an album of neo-rockabilly songs that the label was reluctant to send to radio. They refused to release the record, suggesting instead that Earle reenter the studio with a new, more commercially oriented producer, Emory Gordy, Jr. The pair cut four more songs that were released as two singles, but the records failed.
With his recording career quickly going nowhere, Earle met Tony Brown, a producer at MCA Records. When Epic dropped Earle from their roster in 1984, Brown persuaded MCA to sign Earle instead, and the songwriter further severed connections to his Epic days by firing Lomax as his manager. He issued his debut album, Guitar Town, in 1986.
Although Earle was grouped into the new traditionalist movement begun by Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis, he also gained the attention of rock critics and fans who saw similarities between Earle's populist sentiments and the heartland rock of Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. Guitar Town became a hit, with its title track becoming a Top Ten single in the summer of 1986 and "Goodbye's All We've Got Left" reaching the Top Ten in early 1987. Following the album's success, Epic quickly assembled a compilation of previously unreleased Earle tracks; the collection was titled Early Tracks and released in early 1987. Later that year, the songwriter released his second album, Exit 0, which bore a shared credit for his backing band the Dukes. Exit 0 signaled a more rock-oriented direction and, like its predecessor, received critical acclaim, even if it didn't sell as well as Earle's debut.
Earle's acceptance by the rock community didn't please the country establishment in Nashville. Although it briefly seemed as if Earle wouldn't need Nashville's help anyway, his newfound success quickly began to collapse. Uni, a division of MCA Records, had released Copperhead Road; just before the album went gold, the tiny Uni went bankrupt, taking Copperhead Road along with it.
In 1995, Earle signed to Winter Harvest and released the acoustic Train A' Comin', his first studio album in five years. Train A' Comin' received terrific reviews and strong sales, despite Earle's claim that the label botched the album's song sequence. The attention led to a new record contract with Warner Bros., who released I Feel Alright in early 1996 and El Corazon in 1997; both garnered strong reviews and respectable sales. Earle had returned from the brink and reestablished himself as a vital artist. In the process, he won back the country audience he had abandoned in the late '80s. The Mountain, a bluegrass record cut with the Del McCoury Band, followed in 1999, and a year later Earle returned with Transcendental Blues, produced by T-Bone Burnett.
Earle remained with New West Records for his follow-up release, an album of Townes Van Zandt covers entitled Townes, which was issued in 2009 and won a Grammy for Best Folk Recording. Earle spent most of the year's remainder and all of 2010 writing and recording new songs while playing the role of the musician Harley in HBO's acclaimed television series Treme. A song he wrote for the series, "This City," was nominated for both Grammy and Emmy awards.
In early 2011, Earle emerged with his first new recording of original material since 2007, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, which found the songwriter re-teaming with producer T-Bone Burnett and New West. In the spring of 2013, Earle re-teamed with longtime collaborator and co-producer Ray Kennedy and his road band called the Dukes (And Duchesses) to release The Low Highway. He also inked a two-book publishing deal with Twelve. The first will be a memoir, while the second will be a novel.
As he worked on his literary efforts, Earle didn't neglect his musical career; he and his latest edition of the Dukes cut a blues-based album, Terraplane, which was released by New West in February 2015. In 2016, Earle teamed up with fellow singer and songwriter Shawn Colvin for a collaborative album. Colvin & Earle featured the friends and colleagues sharing vocals on a few new originals and a handful of covers.
In 2017, Earle returned to the major labels with the release of So You Wannabe an Outlaw, which also found him returning to the rough-hewn mix of rock and country that marked his best-known work. The album, released by Warner Bros., included guest appearances from Willie Nelson, Miranda Lambert, and Johnny Bush. Earle's association with Warner Bros. proved to be short lived, and he rejoined the New West roster for 2019's Guy. In the tradition of Townes, Guy found Earle covering 16 songs from the pen of mentor and Texas songwriting legend Guy Clark; Emmylou Harris, Jerry Jeff Walker, Rodney Crowell, and Terry Allen lent their vocal talents to the recordings.
(provided by Allmusic)