Steve Earle

While country/roots rocker Steve Earle has had problems with the law, he also has shown a socially conscious side, playing for and contributing to causes in which he believes.

In 1996, he contributed "Ellis Unit One" to the "Dead Man Walking" soundtrack, of which a portion of the sales went to Murder Victims Families For Reconciliation, Inc., and Hope House, Inc. Last year, Earle fasted and demonstrated against the death penalty at the annual "Starvin' For Justice" rally in Washington, D.C. He also performed at the "Dead Man Walking" anti-death penalty concert in Los Angeles. In September, Earle joined Wilco, Phish, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Willie Nelson and others at Farm Aid '98 in Illinois.

Earle was born 44 years ago today in Fort Monroe, Va. His father was an air traffic controller, and Earle was raised in South Texas. As a teenager, Earle protested the war in Vietnam and loved country music. Always a rebel, Earle left home at 16 and married the first of his five wives at 19. He moved to Houston, and later, Nashville.

In Nashville, Earle became friendly with his "outlaw country" heroes Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, and he wrote songs for Patty Loveless and Johnny Lee. He soon assembled a backing group called the Dukes and gigged frequently. But Earle battled substance abuse, while one of his wives was a cocaine dealer.

After briefly recording on an indie label and an unhappy stint with Epic Records, Earle released Guitar Town -- the album that made critics notice him -- on MCA in 1986. Although he mostly thought of mostly as a new traditionalist country artist such as Dwight Yoakam, Earle had a rockabilly side that pleased many rock fans and journalists. Guitar Town yielded hits in the title song and "Goodbye's All We've Got Left." Exit 0 (1987) was credited to the Dukes as well and provided more proof that Earle was a rocker.

Copperhead Road (1988) was ignored by country radio but was an AOR favorite and did well in Europe, where Earle often toured. The album also featured a duet with the Irish folk-punks the Pogues. But soon, Earle's life began to unravel. He received a year of probation for assaulting a security guard and was served with a paternity suit from a Tennessee woman.

After The Hard Way (1991) tanked commercially, MCA dropped him, and he began years of serious addictions to cocaine and heroin, which brought him legal trouble. In 1994, Earle was arrested for crack possession and was sentenced to a year in jail, but he was able to serve his time in a rehab center.

Earle regrouped and issued the acoustic Train A Comin' in 1995. The indie record was lauded and led to Earle's signing with Warner Bros., which released I Feel Alright in 1996. Earle's devoted, cult fanbase embraced the LP and country fans were drawn to him as well.

El Corazon followed in 1997 and brought him his highest profile to date with rockers such as "N.Y.C.," "Taneytown" and the brilliant folk song, "Christmas In Washington" (RealAudio excerpt). Also in '97, Earle teamed with Seattle rockers the Supersuckers for Steve Earle and the Supersuckers.

In addition to continuing to work for his favorite causes such as sheltering the homeless, Earle will release a new LP early this year. And El Corazon recently was nominated for a Grammy Award as "Best Contemporary Folk Album," along with Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, for which Earle produced basic tracks.

Other birthdays: William Hart (Delfonics), 54; Mick Taylor (ex-Rolling Stones), 51; Ryuichi Sakamoto, 47; Paul Young, 43; John Crawford (Berlin), 42; Susanna Hoffs (ex-The Bangles), 42; and Shabba Ranks, 33.