I've seen Steve Earle play live several times, and met him just the once, in the embrocation-heavy atmosphere of the Clickimin Leisure Centre's concrete corridors. That was in Lerwick, in 2003, and I was as nervous as a kitten. I interviewed him for the radio show, and for The Shetland Times, stumbling over words, gulping with nerves. He was Atkins-Diet-emaciated, beardless, balding, tiny. But forthright, funny, and, as I later discovered, repeating the same anecdotes he gave to every interviewer on that tour.
I had followed Steve's career since seeing him play a stunning support set to, of all people, the gothic indie Americana band Green on Red at Edinburgh's Queen Hall in either late 1986 or early 1987. I remember being amazed to see Steve - of whom I'd never heard - and the Dukes, diving offstage straight to the public bar. They were blindingly good, ripping the place apart with a performance mostly comprising the Guitar Town album. Chuck Prophet of G on R commented grimly as his band tried to follow on, 'thanks to Steve Earle and the E Street Band'. Well, quite.
Standing next to me was Ken McCluskey, of Bluebells and McCluskey Brothers fame, and something of an enemy of mine due to my antics as a reviewer for the lost weekly Melody Maker. We were equally stunned by what was my first real exposure (apart from the likes of Gram Parsons) to what would be labelled Americana. There was even a mandolin onstage. But it was rock'n'roll as much as country. Tough AND twangy...
I bought Guitar Town, headed for Shetland shortly afterwards trailing debts,threats and unhappiness. But I had with me Guitar Town, which was at that stage known only to very few Shetlanders. By the following year, with Exit O, the next Earle album, well and truly out and ubiquitous in the isles, I was in a pub band and performing 'I Ain't Ever Satisifed' in places like the Ferry Inn and The Excelsior. Steve's life took its roller coaster course, involving full-on rock, drug addiction, violence, prison, huge weight gain/loss, political activism and eventual...is redemption the right word?
By 2003, Steve was a Shetland superstar. That solo gig sold out in three hours and, when he was booked to return last year,with son Justin Townes and (most recent)wife Alison Moorer, excitement knew no bounds. Alas, weather problems saw it cancelled.
He's an important musical figure in my life, Mr Earle. I saw him perform a rampagingly aggressive rock set at Barrowland in 2004, and a tediously humble bluegrass set with Del McCoury at the Armadillo in Glasgow. I thought he was great as Walon in The Wire, and he's produced some of the most potent music of recent times, confronting the political establishment in the USA and the musical establishment in Nashville along the way.
More importantly than any of that, he's now unashamedly bald and bearded. I've decided to follow in his fashionable footsteps in that regard...
These clips are both from the David Letterman Show, 21 years apart. Cocaine plays a big part in the first one. Both are wonderful in their own ways.