Hardcore Troubadour

25 years after his debut, Steve Earle comes clean

It's a testament to Steve Earle that his career is neither a quick nor easy one to characterize or break down into bite-size highlights.

Different eras, stories, and personas shine their own lights on the Texas native — from the decade-long musical apprenticeship that ultimately produced his hit 1986 debut album Guitar Town (which reached No. 1 on the country chart) and the heroin addiction that derailed his career, to the political activism that's often defined him and the talent he's displayed in writing, acting, and other areas.

Earle has always been something of a rebel. The only school he seems to have respected is the one of hard knocks. By 16, he'd struck out on his own, having already demonstrated proficiency on guitar. He went first to Houston, where he played coffeehouses and met his mentor, the late singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. Later, he went to Nashville, where he played bass in Texas singer Guy Clark's band.

Both travels inspired Earle, especially the time he spent with Clark, who helped him land a publishing gig, where he penned hits for country stars Patty Loveless, Johnny Lee, and Connie Smith.

Success came fast — probably too fast. The attention and acclaim paid to his early albums only accelerated his druggy descent. Copperhead Road (from 1988) was a move toward a rock direction that ultimately alienated many of his country fans, signaling the iconoclastic artist beneath the country-boy exterior. After the dark 1990 follow-up The Hard Way, Earle spent several years fighting demons, as well as record execs. He spent time in jail. He OD'd, got clean, then messed up again. (He's also been married seven times.)

It would be another decade before Earle got completely clean, but he managed to put his career back on track in the mid-'90s with a series of albums that stand as the best of his career. Earle's demons provided plenty of inspiration for his honest, plainspoken style, which thrives on facing down personal frailties. The albums from this period cover wide sonic expanses, from bluesy acoustic ballads and chugging rock guitars to Bakersfield country and even bluegrass.

As his mid-'80s success dovetailed with that brief moment when Nashville embraced outsider artists like Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith, Earle's '90s output foreshadowed Americana's rise and his own critical comeback.

The events of 9/11 drove 2002's Jerusalem and 2004's follow-up, The Revolution Starts Now. Earle traded his archetypal stories of windblown losers, rebels, and the emotionally reticent for political activism (remember his radio show on Air America?). The albums weren't popular, and even distorted some longtime fans' perspective of his music, which has always been understated but intensely personal.

Earle's new album, the T Bone Burnett-produced I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, returns to his traditional country-blues roots with more tightly sketched, smaller-scale stories that revolve around mortality. The album was inspired by the death of his father in 2008, and indeed, death lurks around every corner of these songs.

The album shares its title with Earle's debut novel, which is set in 1963 San Antonio and follows a defrocked doctor/addict haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams. Earle has also written some short stories and a play. He's dabbled in poetry and painting too. And still, the majority of Americans know him as Walon, the recurring ex-junkie 12-stepper from the TV show The Wire. More recently, he's also appeared in Treme.

All of this leads to an adventurous and gifted artist whose debut album came out 25 years ago. After all this time, Earle continues to defy attempts to limit or dismiss him or his work, posing a continual challenge to both himself and his fans.