A fter two years straight of traveling the much-vaunt ed Lonesome Highway, putting on the hits for country and rock fans alike, you'd think Steve Earle would have exhausted his stock of just-plain-folk stories.
Not so, says Earle, speaking from his headquarters in Nashville, where he has a brief, six-day rest between gigs.
"I write a lot of road songs, but they aren't about being on the road and watching the road go by. They're more like putting myself in the perspective of someone on the road, watching me go by. I mean, no one wants to hear about how bad it is inside a bus that probably cost more than their house did.
"I like to think of myself as lending my audiences a voice. The thing is, not everybody in America has any opportunity to get things said--to be heard, to express themselves. I'd like to do my fans that service. It's the least I can do. They feed my kids."
Earle, who will appear tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, is one of a host of new, young country stars--Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, to name a couple--who are finding success by mixing up a more rock 'n' roll-oriented ethic with songs that have pure country roots.
His subject matter, far from being the drinkin'-fightin'-cheatin' monologue that most country music takes its creed from, is textbook Springsteen/Mellencamp Americana.
And, thanks to Earle's ability to speak on behalf of his fans, his 1986 album, "Guitar Town," went to No. 1 one on the country charts, crossed over to the pop charts and made him a consensus critical favorite. He has a follow-up LP as well: "Exit 0," released this year, which reached No. 15 in the country charts and is still selling steadily.
Earle is working on songs for his next LP, which he's due to begin recording in May. He says the new material may be somewhat surprising to fans of his current style. "It's going to have some real left-field things on it, kind of," he says.
One "left-field thing" he's hoping to get is the Irish rock band the Pogues--a hard-drinking outfit known for sloppy gigs and heartfelt Irish folk music played punk style--to sit in on a track.
"I've always loved their music," Earle says of the band. "I met them last year in Britain, at Abbey Road studios," Earle says, (adding parenthetically that going to Abbey Road was "like going to church.")
"They're really great people. 'Cept we were at a gig and I introduced Spider (Stacey, the Pogues' tin-whistle player) to my music publisher, this old-school guy in a natty suit, and Spider threw up on him."
Which makes Spider a man after Earle's own heart. In the 12 years since moving to Nashville from the suburb outside of San Antonio, where he grew up, Earle has had his share of problems related to alcohol and drugs, as well as three marriages and, in his own parlance, weeks, even whole years, of living dangerously.
Earle calls country music mavericks such as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings his inspirations, yet unlike those outlaw singers, all of whom stayed in Texas, Earle felt it necessary to go to Nashville to work his way up from inside the industry. "I've never once thought that I wouldn't succeed," he says now.
"I'm willing to do just about anything I have to do to reach a large audience--anything except change the music."
Earle won a songwriting contract for CBS Records in 1974, wrote a few minor hits for other artists (including Johnny Lee's 1982 "When You Fall In Love") worked a bunch of day jobs ("never stuck with one longer than 3 months, though,") and played at night with local Nashville bands and musicians.
He also spent a lot of time--10 years, in fact--knocking on the doors of uninterested powers-that-be in the hope of generating a career of his own. MCA signed him in 1984. "Guitar Town" was the eventual result.
Those 10 years of struggling on the downside of town may be why despair, and how to deal with it, is the theme that Earle touches on most often in many of his songs--despair and its flip side, hope.
"Guitar Town" showcases songs like the title cut, which told an autobiographical tale of a struggling singer, and "Someday," the Springsteen-like story of a small-town kid stuck working at a filling station and wishing for a way out. "Exit 0" gave an even bleaker vision of American lives.
" 'Exit 0' is intentionally a one-dimensional record," Earle said. "It's also more of a rock album, more of a look at what my band, the Dukes, sounded like after a year on the road. 'Guitar Town' is more autobiographical, so its less depressing in a way.
"I mark my adulthood as officially beginning when I realized there ain't never going to be a plateau in my life where everything would be all right," he said.
"I guess it happened after 'Guitar Town' came out. I'd worked so long to have a hit record, and once I had one, things didn't change. I found out I still have to justify my existence from time to time. But I've come to terms with that.
"There's a lot of fights I still have to fight, but they're good fights, you know?"
LIVE ACTION: The Charlie Daniels Band will appear at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Nov. 29-30. . . . The Paladins will play Night Moves in Huntington Beach on Nov. 20. . . . National Peoples Gang and 3D Picnic will be at Big John's in Anaheim on Nov. 25. . . . The Mighty Flyers return to the Sunset Pub in Sunset Beach on Nov. 30. . . . The Whispers will play the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim on Dec. 6.
Steve Earle will appear on a bill with Rosie Flores tonight at 9 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano . Tickets $16. Phone (714) 496-8927 for information.