Steve Earle revisits Copperhead Road
Steve Earle revisits his landmark 1988 album on 30th anniversary tour
Before alt-country became a widespread description, let alone a cliché, there was Copperhead Road.
Heralded by bagpipe tones melding with rustic mandolin, the title track to Steve Earle’s third album made a lasting impression from its opening seconds. By the time the song kicked into high gear with a headbanger’s ball a few minutes later, it sounded like a revolution in 1988.
Thirty years later, the album remains a landmark in Earle’s career, and in country music. But at the time, Earle says, he didn’t assume Copperhead Road would be an enduring statement.
“I was just trying to get kicked off the country division of MCA and get on the rock division,” Earle, now 63, said recently with a gravelly chuckle.
“I didn’t know what the album was going to do. … I knew I didn’t have a future at country radio, just because of what it was becoming and what the country division of my record label was doing. I was just trying to make a place for myself in the world.”
Earle had already made a place for himself artistically, staking out the crossroads of authentic country and rock ‘n’ roll on his 1986 debut, Guitar Town. But Copperhead Road elevated him from progressive outlaw to singular force — a vital songwriter and compelling storyteller who casually broke down walls between genres as distinct as bluegrass and hard rock.
As he did with Guitar Town, Earle is acknowledging Copperhead’s 30th anniversary with a tour on which he performs the album in full, backed by an incarnation of his longtime band the Dukes “that can play stuff from pretty much any point in my career.” The tour’s Canadian leg is underway and includes nearly two dozen shows — a testament to Earle’s continuing popularity in this country, and to his early support here. He recalls playing arenas in Canada in support of Copperhead Road and its 1990 followup, The Hard Way.
“From the first record, I’ve always done better per capita in Canada than any place else in the world. I think it’s a tradition of great songwriting there — I think songs are important to you,” he said. “There’s been more than your fair share of really great Canadian songwriters. I think some of it’s the English and Scottish thing that’s so deep in Canada’s DNA, and there’s an oral tradition there that likes songwriting and likes stories being told. That’s always been my theory.”
The stories on Copperhead Road are united in their portraits of the neglected and the desperate, from the unflinching view of homelessness on the tough-as-nails Back to the Wall to the war vets who populate the title track and Johnny Come Lately.
“I was trying to make a record for the same reason that Oliver Stone made Platoon,” Earle said, “because we finally started talking about the Vietnam War. That’s what the record is about.
“At least Side 1. Side 2’s where all the chick songs are.”
Copperhead Road’s first half yielded the standards that have stayed in heavy rotation in Earle’s shows for three decades, but longtime fans may find the chance to hear the sentimental love songs from its back half to be as strong a selling point for the retrospective tour. “I realize now why I got married so many times in the ’80s,” he said. “But those songs are fun, because a lot of them haven’t been played since 1988.”
Still, it’s the hardscrabble first side on which Copperhead Road’s reputation rests, and which led Earle to memorably label the album as heavy-metal bluegrass.
“That was tongue-in-cheek, but like all things that are tongue-incheek, it isn’t completely untrue,” he said. “But a lot of that was just a joke about how I decided to start playing mandolin in my ’30s.
“I only knew two chords on mandolin, and you hear ’em on that record. It was years before I learned any more.”
Earle says he was always fascinated with the instrument that helped give Copperhead Road’s title track its signature sound. When he relocated from Texas to Nashville in 1974, “there were two circles of hipsters: there was a circle of songwriters, most of whom were from Texas and were around Guy Clark, and there was a bunch of long-haired bluegrass musicians who hung out around John Hartford. And those were the two groups of people that smoked pot, so those were the two groups I hung with.”
Earle has just completed a tribute to his mentor Clark, who died in 2016; the album of covers is scheduled for March. He’s already working on its followup, to be released in 2020; as with his 2004 state-of-the-union album The Revolution Starts Now, which came out in the waning days of George W. Bush’s first term, it’s intended as a platform in a critical election year.
“It’s not a record that preaches to the choir. It does a little of that, but it also speaks to people that maybe voted for Donald Trump and maybe didn’t have to. And hopefully, if I do it right, it speaks for them, too. That’s the record I want to write,” Earle said.
“I don’t empathize with the ones in the funny hats that are just plain mean and racist, but I empathize with the people who are frustrated that this trickle-down economics thing never seems to trickle down.
“We vote in private for a reason, and I think trying to make people admit that they were wrong (in voting for Trump), it’s not a healthy or a productive thing to do. If we make them feel like they’re heard and they ’re not alone, maybe they ’ll do something different next time. I think we have to take some responsibility for that.”
Steve Earle and the Dukes perform Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 8 p.m. at Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, 1415 14 Ave. NW, with the Mastersons. Tickets start at $57, available via ticketmaster.ca.
Singer-songwriter Steve Earle says he made the 1988 album Copperhead Road as a way to get kicked off the country division of his record label at the time.
Steve Earle, third from left, lauds the Dukes — Brad Pemberton, left, Kelley Looney, Ricky Ray Jackson, Eleanor Whitmore and Chris Masterson — who can play music from any point in his career.