In an e-mail to Davenport College students announcing discount tickets to the Connecticut Folk Festival, Master’s assistant Barabara Munck included a brief schedule. Next to the headliner’s name, she felt compelled to add a qualifier: “Steve Earle (a legend!).” She wasn’t wrong — the folk rocker has been one of most influential figures in modern country — but most people need a little reminder about just how famous he is.
Earle is one of those musicians who have enjoyed a consistent level of notoriety just below outright fame for the majority of his career. He’s something like a combination of Gram Parsons and Woody Guthrie — he’s nearly as well known for his fiery Marxist politics as his music, and he has published books of haiku and short stories to stand next to his records. More people may have seen him and heard his music than know his name — he’s recently appeared as a recovering heroin addict on HBO’s The Wire, and he also plays the fifth season’s theme song.
Earle dropped out of high school after a second shot at ninth grade, moved to Houston and got to trying to be a rock star. After early ups and downs, he wrote his first top-10 single in 1981, “When You Fall in Love,” which was recorded by Johnny Lee. His released his first full album in 1986, the critically acclaimed “Guitar Town.” He came out of a rockabilly tradition with a heroin-infused edge. Addiction may have lent an air of danger and desperation to his early career, but it soon made music of any kind impossible.
After a two-year period that he refers to as his “vacation in the ghetto,” Earle was put in jail for drug and firearms charges. He emerged clean, and within a year of his release he came out with “Train a Comin’,” an all-acoustic album that won a Grammy in 1996.
Since his addiction, Earle’s music has become much more adventurous. He’s drawn not only on hard rock and bluegrass but als0 increasingly from electronic music and hip-hop as well. At Saturday’s show, he hosted a DJ named Neil MacDonald who gave many of his songs an almost Sublime-like feel, and he seemed to be amused by the incongruity; “Kick it!” he said whenever he got the chance.
His politics moved closer to the center of his work as well — his 2002 album “Jerusalem” pulled no punches with songs like “Amerika v. 6.0,” “Conspiracy Theory,” “Jerusalem” and “John Walker’s Blue’s,” a defense of the American John Walker Lindh who was captured fighting for the Taliban. With 2004’s “The Revolution Starts Now,” an album inspired by the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, he made the Dixie Chicks look like Rush Limbaugh.
Despite the undercurrent of rage in all of his politics, Earle is an optimist. His worldview has a focused patience informed by his battle against heroin — “I don’t believe in hopeless situations,” he said Saturday, “because I can’t afford to.”