Steve Earle On ‘Copperhead Road’: ‘That's F*cking Immortality Right There’

14 March 2023 | 1:55 pm | David James Young

"Someone saw all this and asked if it bothers me? Hell no!”

In 1988, three albums into his career, Steve Earle released what would go on to become his signature song. Copperhead Road is considered a pioneering track in genre fusion, mixing twangy storytelling with drop-D riffs to create something that is quite literally a little bit country and a little bit rock & roll. On the eve of its 35th anniversary, Earle reflects on the song's legacy through a unique light – not its chart success or its staple part of his sets, but for its role in the cultural phenomenon that was line dancing.

“That craze was going on while I was either on the street or I was locked up,” says Earle. “Copperhead Road has become like Cotton Eye Joe – it gets played at every single line-dance in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona every night. There's college kids that weren't even born when that song came out dancing to it now! Someone saw all this and asked if it bothers me? Hell no! That's fucking immortality right there! That song is one of the only surviving parts of the whole craze – I have that for-fucking-ever!” 

Earle is the kind of conversationalist who can talk for minutes at a time, telling stories from across his career and his life that snap between triumph and tragedy at a moment's notice. With the framework of Copperhead Road, Earle is queried as to whether he knows he's onto something successful as a songwriter when he's in the creative process – after all, despite not exactly being a pop idol, he's gone several times gold and platinum in North America and been a mainstay of the Billboard Top Country chart for nearly 40 years.

“I don't have much of a concept of hits,” he replies. “I've never been able to figure out why something of mine is popular but something else isn't. Look at Guitar Town – that's a great example. I wrote that song after I went and saw Bruce Springsteen on the Born In The USA tour, and its sole purpose was to open an album and open a show. I don't think I've ever written anything with as singular a vision in my life... and yet, the label released it as a single and it became my breakthrough song at the time. I was more surprised than anyone, let me tell you.

“Its success felt so counter-intuitive to everything I'd been told up to that point. All these people had told me the importance of a great chorus for everyone to sing-along to. Guitar Town doesn't have a chorus. Copperhead Road doesn't have a chorus. Galway Girl does not have a fucking chorus! I write plenty of songs with choruses, but not many of them have ever been hits the same way those songs have. It's a truly bizarre thing.”

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Next month will see Earle return to Australia for the first time since a solo venture opening for Paul Kelly in 2017. Away from playing at Bluesfest Byron Bay and Melbourne, Earle is also booked in for a co-headlining show with his old friend Lucinda Williams at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney. The two go a long way back, with their working relationship most notably spawning 1998's Car Wheels On A Gravel Road – which is widely considered to be Williams' best album. “We've known each other since we were teenagers,” he says.

“We came up together around the same time – I knew her from my time in Houston, hanging out with Townes [Van Zandt] and that crew. We met up again one night in San Juan when The Long Ryders opened for us, because she was married to their drummer Greg Sowders at the time. We'd keep running into one another, and one time I wrote a duet for us to sing called You're Still Standin' There. She came over to sing her part and liked the way her voice sounded in the studio – and that's how I ended up producing Car Wheels for her. We've done a lot of tours, and a lot of cruises – we're basically the king and queen of the Outlaw Country Cruise every year.”

To compare and contrast his upcoming visit, Earle is asked about his first-ever visit to Australia – which took place in the middle of 1990, shortly after the release of his fourth album The Hard Way. Without missing a beat, Earle grins: “It's a miracle I made it outta Kings Cross alive,” he remarks. “The way promoters worked in those days, you played the big gig in Sydney and then three fucking football clubs scattered up and down the coast. I had a bad heroin habit, and at the time you could buy the strongest heroin I'd ever seen in Sydney. It was China white, and it dissolved without having to heat it up.

“I didn't see a kangaroo or anything like that – I saw the same thing any junkie sees, which is a lot of working girls in the Cross to buy a 50 from and the inside of hotel rooms. I got really sick when the tour moved onto New Zealand, because they didn't have any dope there. In those days, they had two dogs at Auckland airport that kept it all out. We had great shows on that tour, but my manager was definitely glad to get me out of there.”

For tickets and more details on Steve Earle’s upcoming Bluesfest Byron Bay and Melbourne appearances and co-headline show with Lucinda Williams at Sydney's Enmore Theatre, click here.

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