POP MUSIC : Through the Ring of Fire : Country renegade Steve Earle has overcome drug addiction, a stint in jail and a four-year songwriting block to return to the acclaim of his 1986 Nashville breakthrough.

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

There’s a wave of excitement among the people backstage as Steve Earle steps to the microphone for his long-overdue debut on the Grand Ole Opry.

For those industry insiders familiar with Earle’s professional life, it’s good to see this renegade singer-songwriter finally join the list of greats--from Roy Acuff and Hank Williams on--who have played the legendary country music showcase.

They remember how Earle asked to appear at the Opry after the release of his acclaimed 1986 album “Guitar Town,” only to be rejected as too radical. Maybe it was his long hair or defiant swagger, or maybe just the rock tinge to his music. After all, the Opry has a history of being suspicious when it comes to trailblazers. It turned down Elvis too.


For those backstage who are aware of Earle’s traumatic personal life during the last decade, however, it’s good just to see that the singer is still alive.

Earle, 41, was so strung out on drugs in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that he disappeared from the music scene, going almost four years without writing a song. At the low point in 1993, he seemed on a fast track that would end only in jail or a cemetery plot.

Arrested that year on heroin possession charges and the following year on possession of crack and drug paraphernalia, Earle spent two months in jail and in recovery programs in the fall of 1994 on the heroin charge. During that period, he regained both his writing urge and his health.

Earle--who is on probation until December on the other charges--rebounded professionally last year with an acoustic album, “Train a Comin’,” that was released by tiny Winter Harvest Records. The collection--a mix of his own songs and such tunes as the Beatles’ “I’m Looking Through You”--generated some of his best reviews since “Guitar Town.”

And Earle is off to an even stronger start in 1996.

His stark “Ellis Unit One” may be the most haunting track on the “Dead Man Walking” album, the excellent companion piece to Tim Robbins’ powerful film about capital punishment.

The songwriter follows that on March 5 with his first full collection of new songs since 1990. The album, playfully titled “I Feel Alright,” will be released on Earle’s own E-Squared label, which is marketed and distributed by Warner Bros. Records.


Earle is grateful for his second chance--and touched by the support shown him in the music community.

“I’ve had a lot of encouragement, and that’s nice,” he says. “At Farm Aid [last October], Neil Young came over and said, ‘It’s good to see you,’ and I said, ‘It’s good to be seen. It was close.’ ”

Earle laughs uneasily at his own joke, then pauses.

“It was close, you know,” he says in a somber voice. “I knew toward the end that I was dying. I just didn’t know if there was anything I could do about it. That’s what addiction is.”

Perhaps eager to make up for lost time, the bearded Earle moves about a Music Row recording studio with the restless energy that fuels his music. He’s producing an album for the Viceroys, a country-flavored rock band signed to his new label. As he talks, he sometimes stares impatiently at the cigarette in his hand, as if he can’t wait for it to burn out so he can light another one.

When his eyes are hidden behind dark glasses and he’s in full biker regalia, Earle appears hard-boiled. But there’s a disarming compassion and poignancy in his best songs, be it the social commentary of “Ellis Unit One” or the gentle reminiscence of “Goodbye.”

Earle was thrilled when Emmylou Harris, one of his musical heroes, recently recorded “Goodbye,” because the song, from “Train a Comin’,” was the first one he wrote after the four-year dry spell. It’s a wonderfully evocative tale of apology, addressed to a former loved one:

All them long and lonely nights I put you through

Somewhere in there I’m sure I made you cry

But I can’t remember if we said goodbye . . .

Was I just off somewhere or just too high . . .

“I wrote it while still in treatment, and some of it was very personal,” Earle says. “Definitely a catharsis. I thought about changing that line--the one about ‘Was I just off somewhere . . . just too high.’

“I thought, ‘Well, there’s the personal version. Now I need to write the public version.’ That’s what I do sometimes. I change some of the song before I record it. It’s not to hide what I really feel. I just do it to make sure other people can relate to the line.

“But this time, I decided against changing it. I thought, ‘No, this one is mine. After all I’ve been through, it’s going to stay the way I wrote it.’ ”

“Goodbye” is also special to Earle because it was one of the first songs he played after his recovery for John Dotson, who had worked with him on and off as agent or manager since “Guitar Town.”

“He played me ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Hard-Core Troubadour’ [from the new album], and they floored me,” Dotson says when asked what gave him faith that Earle could resume his career after all this time.

“I also knew that Steve was coming up on his 40th birthday and he was beginning to hear things out of his own 13-year-old son,” adds Dotson, who’s visiting the studio. “Things like, ‘Gee, Dad, didn’t you start doing dope when you were 13?’ Along with all the other things that had happened in his life, I knew he had a lot of motivation this time.”

Growing up on country and rock influences in Texas, Earle got an early start in music, playing coffeehouses and bars before moving at 19 to Nashville. After some success as a songwriter, he was signed by Epic Records in the early ‘80s, but nothing really happened until he switched to MCA Records and recorded “Guitar Town.”

It was an especially uneventful time in country music, and the album--filled with stirring, purposeful tales of blue-collar alienation--turned heads. Though some in Nashville hailed it as a new direction for country, much of the country music establishment saw Earle as an outsider.

The album, in fact, stirred a greater buzz in the rock world, and Earle’s subsequent albums took a harder, country-rock direction.

“People always ask me whether we play country music or rock music,” he says. “And I just tell them I play Steve Earle music.”

Earle’s addiction and jail time may also have contributed to the gritty authenticity of his “Ellis Unit One,” which he wrote after Robbins sent him a rough cut of the film. But there was another factor involved: guilt.

Because of the anti-death-penalty sentiments of his 1990 song “Billy Austin,” Earle was contacted by Amnesty International and other agencies fighting capital punishment. At a lawyer’s request, he phoned a death row inmate in Oklahoma to urge him not to waive his appeal rights--a move that slows the execution pace for everyone else on death row in the state.

Earle was later asked to call an inmate in Alabama, but there was confusion over the execution date and Earle placed the call too late. He blamed his tardiness, in part, on his addiction.

“I felt responsible to a certain extent and I just stayed away from the whole death penalty issue after that,” he says. “When I got the call about ‘Dead Man Walking,’ I saw it as a way to, not redeem myself exactly, but to at least pick up the issue again--a chance to renew my commitment.”

As Earle prepares to get back to work on the Viceroys record, he addresses a question about whether career frustrations led to his addiction, and whether he fears a relapse.

“The only thing I know about why I was an addict is it didn’t have anything to do with the music business,” says Earle, who lives about 30 miles outside of town with his wife, Lou-Anne, and their three children, now ages 9 to 14. “I was a heroin addict when I made ‘Guitar Town.’ I just got away with it for a lot longer than most people do.”

About the future, he adds: “I don’t worry about it. What I do is get up and get my ass to [support] meetings, pretty much every day. I don’t know how other people deal with their addiction, but this works for me. I tried every other way in the world to stop, and this worked. This has kept me clean for 16 months, which is the longest I’ve been clean in my life, and I plan to keep it that way.”