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Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet

By David McGee

Backbeat, 330 pages, $17.95 softcover

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh, March 2006

Find it on Amazon
David McGee has certainly written an exhaustive book about Steve Earle. But then again, Earle has also lived a rollercoaster and no doubt exhausting life, which has earned him every inch of such expansive printed attention.

This biography traces Earle's journey, from his beginnings as a struggling Texas songwriter, his brief flirtation with the mainstream country music business around the time of "Guitar Town" and on up to his current politically active stature today.

Along the way, Earle's troubles with drugs and women (presumably, he's never seen a drug or potential wife he didn't like) are also discussed in some detail. But if you're looking for just the musical facts, ma'am, there are also chapters dedicated solely to the details about each individual album release. Although these chapters list the album credits, as you might likely expect, they also go on to tell extensive behind-the-scenes stories about each release.

Some of the best moments, however, can be found in its conversations with other musicians and music business people that worked with Earle over the years. One Q&A, for instance, quizzes The Pogues' Phil Chevron, who helped infuse Celtic elements into Earle's "Copperhead Road" project.

It's also fun for readers to revisit those troubles Earle encountered with record company executives, such as Tony Brown, as they attempted to bravely market a unique individual like Earle.

There's just no one single category for Earle's music. Sure, Earle may have ventured into the country mainstream during his "Guitar Town" commercial heyday, but he was not, nor has he ever been, any stereotypical hat act. This is why his "Copperhead Road" album was marketed by MCA's more pop-rock oriented Uni division, instead of MCA Nashville. And wisely so because this breathtaking album was equal parts rock and twang.

Long before Earle attracted much conservative contempt for his empathetic song about John Walker Lindh, titled "John Walker's Blues," this outspoken singer/songwriter - all politics aside - has consistently been a special artist to keep your eye on.

That's because he wears so many different musical hats. He can be a bluegrass enthusiast, exemplified by his wonderful "The Mountain" album collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, but he can also make legitimate hard rock, the way he did with much of "The Hard Way." He even has a gentle side, best revealed on his "Train a Comin'" post-prison comeback release.

This book's title is an apt one because anyone that's been married seven times already must most certainly have a fearless heart. And after his well-publicized brushes with the law, he's earned the sort of serious street credibility that most gangsta rappers would kill for, which makes him a truly legitimate outlaw.

McGee has admitted that he didn't get much direct help from Earle on this project, which is why he calls his book "an overview rather than an intimate portrait" in the acknowledgements section. The Lives in Music series, which this work is a part of, is a concept series that trains its focus primarily on the music, so personal intimacy is not an essential component.

McGee also mentions in his acknowledgements, however, that "it would be impossible for and irresponsible of an author" to ignore Earle's private life because "his private life informs his music making." And oh what a life (though hardly private) he's led! It's probably a miracle the fearless-hearted Earle is still with us, and that's a blessing we should all be thankful for.