It's the worst rock 'n' roll cliché, chronicled over and over in "Behind the Music" specials that ask us to applaud people like Nikki Sixx and David Crosby for beating drugs and the law. But what are we cheering them for? Surviving? For climbing back to settle into comfortable mediocrity?
For Steve Earle, simply surviving wasn't enough. Look at his life in the five years since getting clean and it's clear the term survivor doesn't really apply. The string of five albums he's put out, beginning with 1995's harrowing, acoustic Train a Comin' and leading through last year's diverse, rock-and-pop flavored Transcendental Blues is a streak as impressive as any artist's in the '90s. He's produced material for other artists and co-owns his own record label, E-Squared. He also recently taught a seven-week course on folk music at the Chicago Folk Center and has a book of short stories due later this year.
Then there's his political activism. David Corn, Washington editor for the political journal The Nation, wrote of Earle, "Welfare rights, opposing the death penalty ... hell, he's done more on-the-ground activism than most legislators." After battling his demons, Steve Earle emerged on the other side a different man and a different artist -- many would say a better man and a better artist -- certainly a more mature one. That's not surviving, that's transcending.
If Stacey Earle's sick of answering questions about her older brother, you wouldn't know it. "I'm proud of him and I'm proud to be his sister," she says. Of course she's probably gotten used to such queries in the two-and-a-half years since she threw herself to the journalistic wolves by releasing her own recording debut, Simple Gearle. But somehow, the wolves didn't ravage her the way they do most siblings of the famous and infamous. In fact, her wistful folk-pop debut and engaging stage presence charmed even the most sharp-toothed and cynical.
Growing up outside of San Antonio, Texas, music was a constant in the Earle household, but it was Steve who seemed the most driven by it from an early age. He left home at 16, first heading to Austin, where he'd become a regular on the coffeehouse circuit, and later moving on to Nashville with dreams of country music stardom two-stepping in his head. Stacey, too, left home at 16, but her dreams weren't musical.
"I remember loving music, but I was a mother by 16," she explains. By 17, she was married and another child quickly followed. "So my dreams became different. My dreams were food in the cabinet and stuff like that." The marriage lasted almost 10 years, but by 1987, Stacey found herself divorced and with two children in her care.
Meanwhile in Nashville, after years of struggling, Steve had finally hit pay dirt. His 1986 album Guitar Town had gone gold behind glowing reviews comparing him favorably to Bruce Springsteen. It was a visionary melding of country, folk and rock that briefly injected life into the dying, glittery beast of mainstream country music. Two subsequent albums, 1987's Exit 0 and 1988's Copperhead Road, helped gild his growing status as a musical savior, but success came at a price. Steve's daily diet had come to include copious amounts of coke and heroin and he was doing little to hide it.
In 1988, he invited Stacey to come live with him in Nashville. On the surface, he needed someone to look after his kids when he went on the Copperhead Road tour, and she was struggling to support her children as a waitress. But it was clear they both needed more.
"At that point I was sinking fast financially," she recalls. "There was only so much I could do -- I had an eighth grade education at the time. So Steve asked me to come to Nashville, maybe for a break. Just to figure out what direction I needed to go and have a rest."
Steve, too, probably needed a rest, but he wouldn't think of taking one. He was arrested a few times over the next few years and, by 1990, his life was a mess. He was also working on his next record and decided to ask Stacey, who'd tinkered with music but never too seriously, to sing on one track.
"I think he thought I needed something special to happen," she says. "He was great like that, cheering me up. So he asked me to sing on The Hard Way record, a duet, 'Promise You Anything.'"
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