Steve Earle on cops, bikers, jail, Ted Bundy, and The Hard Way


By Steve Newton

Steve Earle’s got a headache—a real doozie. The whirlwind promotional tour that brought him to Vancouver’s Georgian Court Hotel has taken its toll, and while this scribbler waits in the lobby, Earle’s up in his room, downing aspirins to ease the pain brought on by countless flights and time-zone changes.

More high-falutin’ “rock stars” might use the first sign of discomfort as a reason to cancel all but the most essential dealings with the press, but not Earle. With a half-hearted grin he strides in, long hair flying, and sits his blue-jeaned butt down. He’s got some important things to say about the songs on his new album The Hard Way and the heartfelt, real-life experiences they relate.

Earle, who is coming to the Orpheum October 21, steels himself with a swig of steaming coffee and starts off with a run-down of his approach to following up his highly successful Copperhead Road album of ’88.

“When I got off the road after the Copperhead tour, and could concentrate on nothin’ but the record, I ascertained pretty quickly that, number one, I was gonna make a band record, because the band was smokin’. I wanted to focus the sound a bit more than I had on Copperhead.

“And I knew I was writing a very personal record—the most personal record I’d written since Guitar Town—so I had to immediately guard against writing personal things that nobody else could relate to. Like people don’t want to hear you feeling sorry for yourself because you’re riding around in a bus that cost more than their house.”

To help give The Hard Way that close personal feel, Earle enlisted various people from his immediate family to help out on some songs. His brother Patrick played percussion and added vocals, his sons Justin and Ian sang on the background chorus of “Regular Guy”, as did his stepdaughter Amy Dotson.

Most notable was the vocal assistance of Earle’s sister, Stacey Earle Mims, because she’ll be joining her bro’s touring band on guitar this year.

“She’s always written songs,” drawls Earle, “and she’s always sung, and she’s always been real good. But she started having babies at a pretty early age. Her kids are just now getting old enough that she feels like she can take a serious run at it, so she’s moved to Nashville. She’s been living at my house, taking care of it, for about a year now. Her kids are there too.

“But she’s writing, and the stuff’s getting stronger all the time. In fact, I’m just an up-tempo song away from putting together a tape of her in my own studio and trying to get her a record deal.”

Not surprisingly, the Earle household was always a musical one when Steve and Stacey were tykes.

“It’s funny,” he says, “I remember seein’ my dad’s high school annual, where they have these caricatures with predictions of what they were gonna be. And in my dad’s case, they showed him with one of those big old RCA microphones, ’cause he was in a barbershop quartet when he was in high school.

“So my parents sang, and we always had a piano in the house. My dad played the ukulele, that kinda stuff.”

Like his pop, the younger Earle has recently been attracted to a small guitar-like instrument, in his case the mandolin. He first used it on the title track of the Copperhead Road album, and it has become a lot more prominent on The Hard Way.

“The only song I knew on mandolin when I recorded Copperhead Road was ‘Copperhead Road’, but on the Dylan tour I had the mandolin out a lot. It’s more portable than guitar, and because most of the time we’d just do the gig and sleep on the bus, I was just wandering around all these big venues bangin’ on the mandolin the whole time. So I ended up writin’ four or five new songs on this record on mandolin rather than guitar.

“And it’s a whole different instrument—it’s different tuning, a little more Celtic, and a little darker. Even ‘Justice in Ontario’ is mandolin-based because that story…I couldn’t find a sound dark enough for it. That song almost didn’t get written—until I got hold of an electric mandolin and ran it through a Marshall amp. It’s pretty scary sounding.”

“Justice in Ontario” is based on a murder that occurred in Port Hope, Ontario, for which several members of the Satan’s Choice motorcycle gang went to jail, while the supposed trigger man got off scot-free.

Various other songs on The Hard Way, like “The Other Kind” and “This Highway’s Mine (Roadmaster)”, also portray Earle as the type of live-free-or-die person that would empathize with the life-style and plight of the biker. The skull and crossbones tattoo on his right arm, with the words “Fear No Evil”, adds to Earle’s Harley mystique.

“Well, I do ride,” proffers Earle, “that’s my major activity outside of music. I’ve never been a clubber; I’m just not a joiner. But I grew up very much in that element. Where I went to high school, you either went to college or you joined the Banditos. And I was exempt only because I played music.

“So it’s nothing foreign to me. I don’t agree with a lot of things that people associate with bike clubs, some of which are unfair and some of which, let’s face it, the police have really capitalized and played on.”

Earle feels that it was public opinion about motorcycle gangs—egged on by police accusations—that was mainly responsible for the false convictions of the bikers in the Port Hope incident. His viewpoint is clear from the lyrics of “Justice in Ontario”:

Blue smoke still hung in the air/No one spoke when the cops got there/Well the local constable made the call/when Corporal Hall walked in the room/with his picture book and a list of names/One by one the witnesses came/and they told him what he wanted to know/Justice in Ontario.”

Having run into trouble with the law himself—he was choked unconscious with a cop’s nightstick after his ’87 New Year’s Eve concert in Dallas—Earle doesn’t hesitate to take a stand against what he feels is unjust. But he’s aware of the inherent danger of fighting the system.

“There’s some concern about reprisals,” he says, “ because the O.P.P. (Ontario Provincial Police) is obviously not gonna be thrilled. My hope is that I’ll be far too out-in-the-open and far too public for the police to do anything and get away with it.

“But the point is, that’s not a reason for doing or not doing anything, because…I very nearly went to prison myself for something I didn’t do, simply because a law enforcement agency didn’t want to admit that somebody had fucked up—they didn’t want to open the whole can of worms and all the other complaints that were constantly brought against the Dallas police department. You can’t stand by and let stuff like that go down without saying anything about it.

“And I think I especially have a responsibility to do that, ’cause if I didn’t have any money right now I’d be in prison in Texas—I’m convinced of that. It was that close. But I was able to afford decent legal representation. And it comes down to the fact that people who can’t afford decent legal representation—who are subject to something like this happening and turning out very badly—feed my kids. That’s where my money comes from and that’s where my freedom comes from.”

“Billy Austin” is another song on The Hard Way in which Earle was able to make his point on a subject he feels strongly about—capital punishment. Loosely based on the life and death of executed criminal Gary Gilmore, the song pulls no punches with its harrowing tale of a man sentenced to die in the electric chair:

“So when the preacher comes to get me/and they shave off all my hair/Could you pull that switch yourself sir/with a sure and steady hand/Could you still tell yourself/that you’re better than I am.”

Even before writing “Billy Austin”, Earle made his anti-capital punishment stance public. During each show on the Copperhead Road tour, he devoted Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” to then-recently executed Ted Bundy.

“Capital punishment is one of a lot of steps backwards that people have decided to take in my country,” says Earle. “And I think it’s because they’re frustrated—they see themselves and their government as impotent, and it makes them feel better when the government can effectively do something about a monster like Ted Bundy. But what I’m hoping to show people is that most of those on death row have more in common with them than they do with Ted Bundy, no matter what they’ve done.

“And the point is, even if you can’t see it as being wrong, things like what happened in Port Hope—and what happened to me in Dallas—prove that the judicial system is less than perfect. And if it’s less than perfect then it doesn’t have the right to decide whether people live or die. Only God should be able to decide that.”

But Earle admits that his position on the death penalty is not one that most of his current fans easily take to heart.

“I think that probably the vast majority of my fans, right now, are pro-capital punishment, because my audience is primarily working class. Last year when I did ‘Nebraska’ in the shows, you could feel it got uncomfortable—and even up here in Canada. But the deal is, they didn’t leave, and they didn’t throw things. They listened; they did listen. I got people thinking about it, if nothing else.”


To hear the full audio of my interviews with Steve Earle from 1987, 1990, and 2012 subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can also eavesdrop on over 400 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, 1997
Gary Holt of Exodus, 1985
Dizzy Reed of Guns N’ Roses, 1992
Scott Ian of Anthrax, 2012
Gary Lee Conner of Screaming Trees, 1992
Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, 1985
David “Honeyboy” Edwards, 2003
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Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, 2001
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Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton of Arc Angels, 1992
Marc Bonilla, 1992
Mike Smith of Sandbox (and Trailer Park Boys), 1996
Dewey Bunnell of America, 1983
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Todd Kerns, 2016
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Tommy Shannon of SRV & Double Trouble, 1998
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Billy Duffy of the Cult, 1989
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Tom Wilson of Junkhouse, 1995
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David Lindley, 2002
Marty Friedman of Megadeth, 1991
John Hiatt, 2010
Nancy Wilson of Heart, 2006
Jeff Golub, 1989
Moe Berg of the Pursuit of Happiness, 1990
Todd Rundgren, 2006
Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, 2001
Steve Earle, 1987
Gabby Gaborno of the Cadillac Tramps, 1991
Terry Bozzio, 2003
Roger Glover, 1985
Matthew Sweet, 1995
Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds, 2003
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John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, 1995
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Steve Lynch of Autograph, 1985
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Kate Bush, 1985
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Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1996
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Colin Linden, 1993
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Elliot Easton from the Cars, 1996
Wayne Kramer from the MC5, 2004
Bob Rock, 1992
Nick Gilder, 1985
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Jason Bonham, 1989
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Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, 2003
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Jimmy Barnes from Cold Chisel, 1986
Steve Stevens of Atomic Playboys, 1989
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Stuart Adamson of Big Country, 1993
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, 1992
Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, 1998
John Bell of Widespread Panic, 1992
Robben Ford, 1993
Barry Hay of Golden Earring, 1984
Jason Isbell, 2007
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Joe Satriani, 1990
Vernon Reid of Living Colour, 1988
Brad Delp of Boston, 1988
Zakk Wylde of Pride & Glory, 1994
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Alice Cooper, 1986
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1985
John Doe, 1990
Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
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Kenny Aronoff, 1999
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Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Randy Bachman, 2001
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Stevie Salas, 1990
J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
Tommy Emmanuel, 1994
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Alex Van Halen, 1995
Eric Johnson, 2001
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Gene Simmons of Kiss, 1992
Ace Frehley from Kiss, 2008
David Lee Roth, 1994
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
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Tony Iommi of Heaven and Hell, 2007
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1996
Geoff Tate of Queensryche, 1991
James Hetfield of Metallica, 1986
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1990
Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites, 1988
Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
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Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 1994
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
R.L. Burnside, 1999
Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, 1985
Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
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Tommy Aldridge, 2001
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne from Australian Crawl, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
Albert King, 1990
Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
Robert Plant, 1993
Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, 1983
Warren Zevon, 1992
Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Roy Buchanan, 1986
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Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
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Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
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…with hundreds more to come

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