Billboard reports that on June 25, Earle and Shout! Factory will release Steve Earle: The Warner Bros. Years, a box set featuring the three albums he released on Warner Bros. between 1995 and 97 – Train a Comin’, I Feel Alright and El Corazon (the latter just about my favourite Steve Earle CD, which is a very hard call), as well as the unreleased concert album Live at the Polk Theater from 1995 in Nashville and a DVD, To Hell and Back, from a 1996 concert at the Cold Creek Correctional Facility in Tennessee. Earle wrote an introduction for the set, while David Simon, who created the HBO shows “The Wire” and “Treme,” contributed an essay about Earle and his music.
Earle recorded the three albums after being jailed for drug and weapons possessions. After reading Hardcore Troubadour: The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle by Lauren St John, I believe we have been blessed by the fact that Steve was able to get off the floor and deliver these brilliant albums and an incredible high quality output ever since. As Steve reported to Billboard: “It was pretty much a flurry of activity; they were the first sort of burst of stuff I did after I didn’t do anything for four and a half years. I knew what I was and where I was as a songwriter, even as a drug addict, but I had to sort of start over again and get back to how I wanted things to sound. My earlier stuff were digital records and very slick 80’s recordings — the drums were fucking loud, there were a lot of gated reverbs on everything. I’m not ashamed of it; it was the 80’s, and that’s what we did. But by (1995) I was after something else.”
That’s certainly true of the Grammy Award-nominated Train a Comin’, a stark, rootsy and acoustic set that Earle first released on Winter Harvest Records before it was subsequently picked up by Warners.
“As soon as I got out, when I was getting ready to be released, I wanted to get my feet wet,” Earle recalls. “I had a lot of older songs lying around, and a few new songs — I wrote “Goodbye” in treatment, the first song I’d written in four and a half or five years. After I got out I started writing some rock ‘n’ roll songs, but I set them aside. I really wanted to make an acoustic record before I cranked it up again.”
Earle says he’s particularly happy to have the live material as part of The Warner Bros. Years. The Polk Theater date, in fact, was his first Nashville show after his release and features guest appearances by Emmylou Harris and Bill Monroe.
“Having Bill Monroe walk out on stage was just…incredible,” Earle says. “I knew he was there; Peter (Rowan) had invited him, and he was sitting on stage with my parents. We only included one song with him (“The Walls of Time”); he was actually there for eight. We had a little trouble getting him off stage (laughs), but that’s OK. He performed one more time that I know of after that, at a bluegrass festival. He had already had his first stroke and didn’t play mandolin anymore. That’s one of my favorite songs on the record.”
Earle, who also appears in and writes music for “Treme” — wound up leaving Warners after El Corazon, following a dust-up over The Mountain, a bluegrass album he recorded with the Del McCoury Band. He’s released seven studio albums since, including the aforementioned, new, brilliant The Low Highway which came out April 2013.
He begins a North American tour on April 26 in Bethlehem, Pa. and will appear at the Bergenfest on June 13 in Norway. Earle recently wrapped up his second feature film appearance in David Burris’ “The World Made Straight,” in which he plays “this hillbilly sociopath, a drug dealer in the 70s in rural North Carolina. Not a nice guy at all.” And he’s working on a new book, which he says will be “a literary memoir” more akin to Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles” and Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” than a standard autobiography.
“I’m not competing with Keith (Richards’ ‘Life’),” says Earle, who plans to title the book “I Can’t Remember if We Said Goodbye.”
“It’s in three acts, basically, about mentors and teachers. It’s due at the end of the year; I’ll be able to work on it on the road. I’m supposed to turn it in at the end of November or something. I might make it. I’m pretty good about making deadlines.” Earle is also contracted to write a novel after the memoir.
There’s no question that Steve Earle is going through a purple patch of creativity and we are so lucky to be able to reap the benefits of this extraordinary artist.