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Beyond Artistry

Steve Earle's inspirational comeback from the lost years of drug addiction yields a rare musical intimacy and a poetic legacy.


I've always liked to think of a critic's job as a search for artists rather than heroes, but the line sometimes gets crossed--as, for me, in the case of Steve Earle.

Earle's artistry was on display at virtually every step of his concert Thursday at the Sun Theatre in Anaheim, the start of a Southern California tour swing (where he's joined on the bill by a sensational young rock band, Marah) that continues tonight at the House of Blues in West Hollywood.

For more than two hours, he and his three-piece band, the Dukes, focused primarily on songs from his last five albums--a series of CDs that represents one of the most impressive yields of any singer-songwriter over the last decade. Only Beck and Neil Young, perhaps, have delivered as consistently glowing work over that period.

Earle's best songs are personal expressions of longing and regret that speak of intimate moments with a tenderness and eloquence rare in contemporary pop.

In song after song from such albums as 1996's "I Feel Alright" and this year's "Transcendental Blues," Earle shares unguarded moments in ways that most writers miss, and he supports his often poetic images with an evocative mix of country, rock, folk and blues strains.

"Goodbye," from 1995's "Train a Comin' " album, is his most haunting and nakedly confessional love song. It's a tune as achingly beautiful as Tim Hardin's classic "Reason to Believe," conveying the anguish Earle's drug addiction caused those around him in the early '90s. The addiction was so severe that for a spell he lost his career--and almost his life.


In the song, Earle, 45, looks back through the haze to ask himself whether he was even sober enough to say goodbye to a loved one. "Was I just off somewhere just too high?" he sings.

Earle was one of the brightest young hopes of country music in the mid-'80s. His "Guitar Town," a gritty, blue-collar look at society's stacked deck, was hailed by country and rock critics in terms usually reserved for Bruce Springsteen.

But Earle got so strung out on drugs that he went four years in the late '80s and early '90s without even writing a song, and he dropped pretty much out of sight. He hit bottom when he was arrested in 1993 on heroin possession charges and ended up spending two months in jail and in recovery programs in the fall of 1994.

So why does our appreciation of him go beyond his artistry?

Because Earle fought back.

He slowly but dramatically rebuilt his career, a rarity in the pressure-packed world of pop music. In the process, he has exhibited even greater dimension and depth as a writer and has made equal progress in his personal life. After a series of divorces, he realized that he has to work at relationships, and he has now found comfort in one. At the same time, Earle has become increasingly active in crusading against the death penalty.

He not only campaigns against capital punishment, but also corresponds with death row inmates. When a Texas inmate asked Earle to join him during his final days, the singer answered the call--though it was such an emotionally draining experience that he's not sure he'd ever be able to do it again. "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)," from Earle's new album, is a moving account of that experience.

On stage Thursday, Earle brought all that personal and professional history together in an inspiring show that gave equal attention to the darkness of the songs that followed the drug years and the increasing optimism of his new material.

"I'm thinkin' 'bout givin' up this ramblin' round," Earle sang during "Steve's Last Ramble," a feel-good tune that acknowledges the increasing joy in his personal life these days.


He followed it with two more songs that reflect his new peace of mind. "Lonelier Than This" is about the fear of losing the newfound love, while "I Don't Want to Lose You Yet" is a pledge to live up to the responsibilities of the relationship.

"The years that I lost were the years between age 35 and 40, so I feel like Muhammad Ali," Earle said, sitting in his tour bus before the concert Thursday. "It's hard not to wonder what would have happened if I had held onto those years, which often tend to be, for musicians, the best years in their life, creatively and career-wise.

"But I came out of that period with something positive, a second chance, and I realize the opportunity. I never made a record that I'm ashamed of, but I do see my work as almost two separate careers and see myself as two separate people. I take my gift [as a songwriter] much more seriously. I am able to keep focused rather than chase around trying to find dope and taking that gift for granted."

Earle says he is so disciplined that he writes something every day--though not always a song. He has just finished a book of short stories and has been devoting increasing time to poetry.

But the Nashville resident doesn't feel his struggle against drugs is over.

"It's an ongoing everyday thing for me not to shoot dope," he says. "I still go to meetings. I sponsor people. I call my sponsor. I'm still doing exactly the same things, the same 12-step program, to stay clean six years later."

Earle has had a gold album in his career (1988's "Copperhead Road"), but his album sales now mostly peak around the 100,000 mark. One reason for the limited sales is that he doesn't get much radio airplay because program directors don't know quite what to call him. Country? Rock? Folk? Adult alternative? Americana?

For me, hero is good enough.

* Steve Earle, with Marah, tonight at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 9 p.m. $25. (323) 848-5100.

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