He is a singer-songwriter, guitarist, producer, writer and actor born Stephen Fain Earle as the eldest of five children at Fort Monroe, Hampton, Virginia where his father was stationed as an air traffic controller in the military.
The family went to Texas before he was two years old and resided at several locations in the state with most of the years spent in Schertz, getting his first guitar when he was eleven years old and getting third prize at a local talent contest when he was thirteen. He decided he wanted to find out more about a profession in music and so left school during his 9th grade to go to his uncle in Houston to follow his interest. Too young to work in bars, he often worked in coffeehouses and became acquainted with the campaigners against the Vietnam war.
He then went on to Nashville, Tennessee in 1975 and worked various jobs while also managing to secure a job touring and recording with Guy Clark, who helped him to become a songwriter for RCA’s division Sunbury Dunbar. Countless country music artists have recorded his songs including “Mustang Wine” by Carl Perkins, which had originally been given to Elvis Presley who failed to turn up for the recording, “A Little Bit of Love” by Patty Loveless and the Top 10 hits “When You Fall In Love” by Johnny Lee and “Sometimes She Forgets” for Travis Tritt. Many other artists that have sung his songs including Johnny Cash, Guy Clark, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Levon Helm, Waylon Jennings, The Pretenders, The Proclaimers, Eddi Reader, Percy Sledge and Steve Wariner.
He recorded an EP in 1982 and signed for Epic from 1983 but they let him go in 1985 after they hadn’t promoted him, even though he had recorded an album they refused to release. In 1986, however, he released Guitar Town on the MCA label, which became a gold certified album. His follow-up Exit 0 was released the following year as well as his previously recorded material appearing on the album Early Tracks when it was released by Epic in 1987. In 1988 he released Copperhead Road and relocated to Los Angeles, remaining with MCA.
The 1990s came along and he released The Hard Way and toured with his sister who was a member of his band Steve Earle & The Dukes, but things weren’t going so well for him due to a serious heroin habit. He released the live 1991 Shut Up and Die Like An Aviator and had his contract ended by MCA. This resulted in him giving up recording and performing from 1992. His problems got bigger when he landed in jail, but the good thing was that he managed to kick the habit on a rehab program while he was there and when he was paroled in 1994 he was back on the straight and narrow and ready to return to his music.
An active opponent of the death penalty he has recorded several songs on the subject and in 1995 he performed a couple of songs for the soundtrack of Dead Man Walking. He went back to his country music roots and released Train A Comin’ which won him a 1996 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. He also got together with the producer Ray Kennedy and started a record label, which gave him more freedom to explore different styles of music.
He now performs sometimes more than 200 shows annually with his Bluegrass Dukes or Dukes depending on the show and has turned his hand to writing. Becoming a playwright, he wrote a play that concentrates on the death penalty and directed the production. He also published Doghouse Roses, which is a short story collection and a book of the Japanese poetry known as haiku.
Just an American Boy is a 2002 documentary about him, which was made during the supporting tour of his “War on Terrorism” influenced Jerusalem release. He has also had two biographies written about him by David McGee and Lauren St. John. In 2002 he also became a member of the TV series The Wire and has made appearances in several episodes. He has also sung “I Feel Alright” and his rendition of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” has been used as the theme for the fifth season.
Other movies and shows which have used his songs either with him performing or as a composer for their soundtracks include The Beverly Hillbillies, Brokeback Mountain, G.I. Jane, The Horse Whisperer, Pay It Forward, The Pledge and Sgt. Bilko.
In 2004 he began to host his own show on Air America, which lasted three years and the UK’s BBC Radio 2 honoured him with a lifetime achievement award that same year. Also in 2004 he released The Revolution Starts Now, which received a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk album. The title song became a bit of a cause for controversy in 2005 though when he gave permission for it to be used in a television commercial by General Motors. Michael Moore also used the song for his promotion of Fahrenheit 9/11.
He moved to New York City and released Washington Square Serenade in 2007 using a new recording technique for him, which was a digital rather than analogue. Also in 2007 he began working for satellite radio’s Outlaw Country Channel on the show Hardcore Troubadour. The following year he produced the Grammy nominated Day After Tomorrow for Joan Baez.
In 2009 he released Townes, which is his tribute to Townes Van Zandt who he first met in Houston in 1972 and became his role model, and won him further Grammy Awards. That same year he appeared in the movie Leaves of Grass as a supporting actor and in 2010 he made an appearance in the TV series Treme as a street musician.
In 2011 he released I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive as well as publishing his first novel. In 2015 out came his 16th studio album Terraplane and in 2016 the album of duets Colvin and Earle appeared with Shawn Colvin, which was followed by a tour of the US and London.
His has performed with numerous acts during the course of his career, which include David Byrne, Roseanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Chris Hillman, Indigo Girls, Nanci Griffith, Kris Kristofferson, The Pogues, The Rolling Stones, Pete Seeger and Patti Smith.
The albums he has appeared on aside from his own are numerous but a few of them include No. 1 by Guy Clark, Wrecking Ball by Emmylou Harris, Wanted! The Outlaws by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings & Jessi Coul and Born to Boogie by Hank Williams Jr.
Still heavily involved in the political side of things he is often seen performing at the “Concerts for a Landmine Free World” and in 2010 was giving the Shining Star of Abolition Award by the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Here’s his “Copperhead Road”…