Lauren St. John, Hardcore Troubadour:
The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle
(HarperCollins, 2002)

When Steve Earle's Guitar Town album was released in 1986, country music was in a major funk. Younger writer/performers like Earle and Dwight Yoakam, among others, were touted as being the new generation who would revitalize the genre. Steve Earle then did everything he could to break free of any such expectations, and to become one of the most independent-minded non-genre-specific rockin'-country-bluegrass-roots music icons to ever come down the road. Lauren St. John has written a book that seeks to document his journey. It's not a pretty picture.

Born in 1955 to an ex-military father and a mother described in the book as "a peerless example of Life magazine's assertion that, 'of all the accomplishments of the American woman, the one she brings off with the most spectacular success is having babies,'" Steve didn't waste any time choosing a different path. He dropped out of school in grade eight to live with Townes Van Zandt, his idol and mentor. St. John tracks his slow decline into the abyss of drug dependency, abuse, and the long struggles to climb out and achieve the level of health and success he enjoys today.

The book is well enough written. It's journalism, not literature. Sometimes story after story of heroin tales and bad behaviour gets wearing. The repeated incidences of abuse blend together, until the reader is thinking, "Not again!" But still you are drawn back into the story, because under all the wild living, addiction and mistreatment of friends and family, St. John shows you the real man. A survivor. His father is quoted as asking Steve, "Why do you always have to do everything the hard way?" Steve's reply was, "There isn't any way but the hard way. There isn't any way to get from point A to point B without taking some bumps."

As well as showing us the personal flaws and demons that haunted Earle, St. John tracks his musical career, which was also filled with "bumps." Never promoted — in the early days — as well as he should have been, his career was slow in taking off. If he'd been just a bit more cooperative, if he'd worn the cowboy hat, and used the studio musicians, and made his records sound like the Music Row machine wanted him to, he'd've reached the top much sooner. But Earle remained true to himself. He took his own band, The Dukes, on tour when management would have preferred he use session men. He demanded loyalty from his friends, band and lovers when he couldn't reciprocate.

His story is often depressing, sometimes infuriating, but ultimately victorious. His own path has led him to create exciting and interesting music. Still controversial, as with his recent song about the Taliban, but now focused and clean, he continues to challenge the status quo with each new album. St. John has provided a collection of snapshots, which, taken together as a collage of Earle's life, give us perspective into his past, his flaws, his creativity, and his vision. A compelling read.

[David Kidney]