Moments Impaled on a Pencil

For Steve Earle, it's not just country music that tells a story.

A few years back, when I was interviewing a grizzled musician who called Austin, Texas home, he mentioned a Nashville-based buddy of his who had recently landed a big-time recording contract. He was going to be a star.

"The first thing the record label did," lamented the Lone Star native, "was sign the guy up with a personal trainer."

As falls Nashville, so falls country music. Long in decline, what pass for country and Western now are stars with Hollywood faces and hard bodies. Gone are the fabled hayseeds, the sandpaper vocals, the big hair and the rhinestones. Even the most bloated artists of yesteryear sound pretty good when compared to the squeaky-clean superstars that now rule C&W airwaves. At least the old stuff sounded real. These days, multi-million-dollar record deals fuel the industry and the scratch-and-sniff writing style of yesterday has been replaced by a hickory-smoked version of corporate pop.

And then there's Steve Earle.

Earle was the "next big thing" in country music for a brief spell in the mid-1980s. And from the beginning he was a burr in the saddle of the mainstream Nashville. He had a couple of hits, but he swam against the tide. His roots had as much to do with the Rolling Stones as they did with Conway Twitty and his politics reflected Woody Guthrie-populism in the age of Reagan. It couldn't last and it didn't.

Drugs took over, then jail, then rehab. Somewhere in there, Earle went through five marriages. But somehow he came out of the whole dark period stronger than ever. His first post-prison album, 1995's Train a Comin', proved he was back in vengeance.

Since then, he has been churning out back-to-back albums containing solid work. Each displays a mastery of music that reaches far beyond the clichés of country. He still delivers heart-tugging ballads like nobody's business, but he is also right at home behind the wheel of screaming rockers, bona fide Celtic rave-ups, Beatles-laced feedback and authentic bluegrass.

Now, taking his Renaissance man role one step further, Earle has released a new collection of short stories. Doghouse Roses shows that Earle's abilities with a pen do not require the accompaniment of chord changes.

Normally when an artist delivers an unexpected collection of prose, embarrassing laughter follows (witness the collected works of Jewel). Once in awhile they get it right, though, and a critical pat on the back accompanies the moment along with comments about the colorful characters that populate his or her imagination.

Happily, Earle gets it right in this new collection. But more importantly, he avoids relying on quaint and quirky personalities to carry his narratives.

Instead he reaches. He goes far beyond the boundaries of country and Western. Sure, there are tales from the sidewalks of Nashville and the dusty hills of Texas, but the reader is also taken to modern Vietnam, the deserts of Southern California, the cramped innards of a truck hauling illegal aliens and the even more claustrophobic site of an execution chamber.

"Taneytown" builds on a powerful song Earle penned a few years back describing the nightmare a mentally retarded black kid encounters when he leaves his rural home for a forbidden glimpse of small-town life. The title story and "A Eulogy of Sorts" both reveal the grubby existence of drug addicts--a lifestyle that Earle knows all too well. When he writes about freebasing and watching the "opaque smoke billow and expand in the glass bowl and then disappear like a flirtatious genie," it sounds painfully close to a confessional.

Fans will no doubt peruse the stories looking for the facts of Earle's life woven into the fabric of the fiction. Certainly the down-and-out musician described in the book's first tale will bring the author to mind, but the guy could be also anyone whose career went suddenly south.

Better yet is "Billy the Kid," Earle's mythical story of a Nashville musician so good that only a select few ever get to hear him. Somehow Earle crafts a tale that is both love letter to his home town and an exposé of a city "built by music publishers who cut deals over strong drinks and hundred-dollar-a-hole golf." Again, the hero of the story could be Earle. Or he could be Earle's mentor Townes Van Zandt. Most likely, though, he is any one of the many "hillbillies with vision" who have tried to scratch out a living in the capital of country music.

It is a bartender who tells the tall tale of "Billy the Kid" and he wishes that he, too, were a "real" writer who could "impale that moment on a No. 2 pencil and mount it on a yellow legal pad."

Earle is such a writer.