It's doubtful that anyone has had a more troubled relationship with Nashville than Steve Earle. After dropping out of high school and moving there from Texas in the early 70s, he fell in with legendary outsiders like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, perfecting his distinctive songwriting and developing a penchant for hard drugs. He eventually hooked up with MCA and in 1985 released Guitar Town, a harbinger of "new" country's return to the music's roots. He was poised for big things, and if 1987's Exit O didn't exactly deliver them, it proved he was no fluke. The following year he released Copperhead Road, defiantly flipping Nashville the bird with a delirious, pounding amalgam of twang and hard rock. Exceptionally well read, a proud member of the NRA, and a junkie with a very hungry habit, Earle not only wore biker garb on the album's cover, he strewed Copperhead Road with references to Vietnam, bootlegging, and pot farming. It sold an impressive 400,000 copies in the U.S., with even larger sales in Canada, but alienated him musically from Nashville. His next and penultimate MCA record, The Hard Way, sold poorly; a live album followed with similar results. Since then countless drug and contempt of court charges have foiled various comeback attempts, though a few years ago he gave a reportedly amazing set of performances at Schubas. A profile in Spin earlier this year suggested that following his release from jail he's really cleaned up his act, and, if his latest album is any indication, sobriety agrees with him. Train a Comin' (Winter Harvest), an all-acoustic collection made with some of Nashville's finest players--guitarist Norman Blake, mandolinist Peter Rowan, and bassist Roy Huskey--is a phenomenal survey of his career, including previously unrecorded originals, some covers, and a batch of strong new compositions. The writing remains up to snuff, and his singing is better than ever. The musicians on the album will perform with him live--a situation Earle rarely puts himself in these days, much less with such excellent collaborators. Wednesday, 8 PM, the Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield; 472-0449 or 559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Kozol.