“BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU wish for, friends / I’ve been to hell and now I’m back again,” Steve Earle sings on the title track of his new CD, I Feel Alright, and there’s nothing metaphorical about the sentiment. For most of the eighties the San Antonio—bred country rocker rode high and hard with albums like Guitar Town, Exit 0, and the redneck epic Copperhead Road, but he was also an unrepentant junkie. By 1993 he found himself with no new material and no record contract, just the papers from his fifth divorce and a criminal record that included a brief stay in a Tennessee prison.
There was nowhere to go but up. Now, at 41, Earle has been drug-free for sixteen months, is remarried to his fourth wife, and is up for a Grammy for his 1995 comeback record, the stark, lovely, acoustic Train a Comin’. “Ellis Unit One,” his track on the critically acclaimed Dead Man Walking soundtrack, stands out from a pack that includes offerings by Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits. And finally, there’s I Feel Alright, a full-blooded electric effort that hits the stores March 5 via Warner Records and his own E-Squared imprint.
Like most Texas troubadours not named George, Earle is too much of a rebel to be a mainstream country darling. Nevertheless, he does live in Nashville, having arrived when he was a nineteen-year-old looking to make a buck as a songwriter. “People would tell me, ‘Oh, man, you don’t need to go to Nashville, the music business is going to come [to Texas],’” he recalls. “That just didn’t make any sense to me. The weather’s too good. The dope’s too cheap.” His early records (like those of fellow Texans Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett) briefly captured Nashville’s affection before the city yielded to fake traditionalists and glossy hat acts. “We all wanted to do things that were going to lessen our chances of selling records,” he admits. In Earle’s case, it was a steadfast avoidance of easy pigeonholes. His brawny, leather-and-tattoos image suggested a Guns n’ Roses reject; the apocalyptic might of his live shows was reminiscent of Springsteen; and his sparse, poetic writing revealed the Townes Van Zandt-Guy Clark disciple he truly was. Not exactly Opryland fodder.
But today the music industry is momentarily fixated on a sort of alternative country genre known as Americana, so it seems like a good time for him to reclaim his rightful place. I Feel Alright easily regains whatever steps he lost during his downtime, as he applies his gruff, tender drawl to a keen set of rousing anthems, romantic roots pop, and dark-night-of-the-soul ballads. “There’s nothing I’m more tired of than the argument about whether my records are country records or rock records,” he says—but whatever you call it, it’s vital stuff, proof of a talent that’s bigger and bolder than the outlaw’s romance with pain, drugs, and martyrdom. Steve Earle feels alright; he’s never been better.