Multi-talented Steve Earle was born on a military base in Hampton, Virginia in 1955. He dropped out of school in the 9th grade to pursue a career in music, then moved to Nashville in 1975 and worked as a staff writer for RCA Records. His own debut album, Guitar Town, was not released until 1986, earning Grammy nominations for Best Country Male Vocalist and Best Country Song for the title track. Earle followed that up with two Grammy nominations for the album Exit 0 in 1988.
Earle documented his long struggle with drug addiction in his biography, Hardcore Troubadour: The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle. He began using heroin when he was 13 and spent the 1990s, as he has famously referred to it, "vacationing in the ghetto." He was regularly seen drunk or high on cocaine around Nashville. His money spent on drugs or alcohol and no longer fit to perform, Earle borrowed money from friends or pawned his guitars to feed his habit. Finally, in 1994, he was sentenced to prison and a stay in rehab after failing to appear for a court date. By January 1995, Earle was sober and released his comeback album, Train A Comin', which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1996.
His first Grammy came in 2005 for Best Contemporary Folk Album for The Revolution Starts…Now. Earle is well known for his liberal political views and this album stirred up some controversy for its anti-Iraq War leanings. The title track was used as the theme song to Earle's radio show on Air America, which was on the air from August 2004 through June 2007. He said in 2007 that part of the reason he moved to Greenwich Village in New York was he was "tired of being behind enemy lines" in Nashville, where he had lived for over 30 years.
Earle showed his acting skills when he played Waylon, a recovering drug addict for the HBO series, The Wire. Referencing his own struggles with addition, Earle said that he didn't really have to act to play the part. He told Spinner in 2008, "Playing Waylon is like going to a 12-step meeting and getting paid for it."
His cover of Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole" was used as the opening theme for the show's fifth season. Earle played a musician for another HBO series, Treme, in 2010 and 2011. The song "This City," which he wrote for the series set in post-Katrina New Orleans, was nominated for both a Grammy and an Emmy Award in 2011.
Already an accomplished writer of short stories, Earle completed his first novel, I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive, in 2011. He created a fictional account of a doctor who is haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams, drawing from the real life mystery surrounding Williams's death in 1953. Earle said in a 2011 interview with the St. Louis's Riverfront Times that part of the reason he moved to New York was to be closer to the theatre and "breath the same air as [playwright] Tony Kushner." Earle finished his first play, Karla, in 2005 and began work on his second play in 2011. He said while he does want an audience for his plays, just like his music, it does not have to be a big audience. He believes that his fans have high standards for him, saying, "I have respect for them and they have respect for me."
On Earle's "BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert" he told his Dublin crowd that back home in the US there was intent on defining his music as Country or Rock. He told his audience, "I personally couldn't care less, and apparently y'all didn't care either. The main thing is there are two kinds of music. Good and bad."
Steve Earle has been married seven times, including twice to the same woman, Lou-Anne Gill. His last marriage was to singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, with whom he tied the knot in 2005. They had a child together, John Henry, in April 2010 and announced their separation in March 2014.
In 1996, Earle told Rolling Stone: "I'd hate to be my wife. I've been a serial husband and I've done it badly every time."
Asked by Q magazine what he was like at 14 years of age, Steve Earle replied: "I was a nerd. I didn't play football and I was in Texas, so the only way I was going to distinguish myself was by playing the guitar. But I took it too far. I was the pain-in-the-ass kid who took the guitar every place I went. People got sick of it and people made fun of me for it."
Songs have always come easily to Earle, except for one bad stretch. "The only time it never came easy to me was the four-and-a-half years I didn't write anything because I was trying to run down $500 to $1,000 worth of drugs every day," he said in a Songfacts interview
. "Between 1992 and late 1994, I didn't write anything."
He credits Bob Dylan
for "inventing" his job. "Rock and roll only becomes an art form because of the lyrics," he told Rolling Stone