Catching Back Up With Steve Earle

Steve Earle is playing the Stevens Center downtown tonight and this old boy will be in attendance, third row balcony, with my bride Tybee and our long-time compadre Lenox Rawlings.

And as the song goes, if you think I’m happy you’re right.

Steve has meant a lot to me for a long time. We have so much in common other than talent. We both worship the written word. We both can’t help but raise hell over what’s going haywire in this country. And we both play guitar and write songs.

The difference, of course, is that his songs have been heard all over the world. To hear mine you have to make it out to Bethania on a Thursday night.

That, and the fact he’s been married seven times to my one.

Tonight will be the first time I’ve caught a Steve Earle show in about 25 years, dating to a time that I was lucky enough to make Nashville pretty much an annual destination as the Wake beat reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal. Wake played Vandy regularly back then, in both football and basketball, and as a paper we still had the will and resources to follow the Deacons everywhere they hit the gridiron or court.

A man needs a plan, and mine was always to check in the Hampton Inn in West End, across from Centennial Park. Used to cost only a hundred and change to stay there, enough of a bargain to get it past the bean-counters when I turned in my Expense (make that Suspense) Form to be reimbursed.

I knocked all around Nashville in those days, making it out to Green Hills to the Bluebird Cafe whenever I could. Saw some shows well worth seeing, including one with Russell Smith, the songwriter and front man of one of my favorite bands from the 70s, the Amazing Rhythm Aces.

And as an aspiring songwriter, I made the rounds of Music Row dropping off a cassette tape of my latest song to anyone who would deign to accept it.

All these years later, I’m still waiting to hear back.

Ed “Fast Eddie” Hardin, my compadre with the Greensboro News and Record, was along a time or two or three, and, again, as the song goes, we were bad for each other, but good at having fun. Ed sat with me down at Muddy Creek Cafe when I announced my retirement last August, and we recounted the afternoon we spent in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge that I immortalized in song.

Another time we made our way to the deck out back of Tootsie’s, where we found two characters named Gary Bennett and Chuck Mead who were putting together this band that would eventually become BR-549.

Good times.

One good reason to stay at the aforementioned Hampton was that there was a Longhorn Steakhouse right next door, and, in those days, I was big-time into the Longhorn Steakhouse. And to my great delight, I come to find out that songwriters from nearby Music Row were known to haunt this particular Longhorn Steakhouse, often in the afternoon when they really didn’t have anywhere much else to go.

So one afternoon I stumble in for a late lunch, and I notice two or three ne’er-do-well types sitting down at the other end of the bar. And the jukebox kept playing the same song over and over, something about a Big Dog. Problem was, it really wasn’t that good of a song.

But by sliding closer and closer down the bar, long-neck beer by long-neck beer, I come to find out that one of the songwriters sitting there had written the song, and he was celebrating by playing it on the jukebox at Longhorn Steakhouse all freaking afternoon.

It turns out, though, that he was a really good guy. His name was Michael Grady, and he said he was from Shreveport. He had been in Nashville doing what most songwriters are in Nashville doing, trying like hell to keep a roof over his head and food in his belly.

He patiently answered all the questions I had about how a rube might become Nashville’s next star songwriter. But whatever I asked, his reply was pretty much the same.

Go home. Get the hell out of Nashville. It will only break your heart.

He said it with a smile, but he meant it.

His eyes grew wide, though when I mentioned that Steve Earle was playing in a club downtown off Broad Street, and that I was headed that way after dinner.

“Steve’s in town?’’ he asked. “Didn’t know that. Steve’s a good friend. Could I catch a ride?’’

Driving to the show, he filled me in on Steve’s current state, of which I was only vaguely aware. It wasn’t until later that I found how just how deep an abyss Steve had fallen into, and how he was pretty much on the streets during those days hooked on the customary forms of addictions.

But I wasn’t worried about any of that. I was headed to a Steve Earle concert with a good friend of Steve’s in tow, and I could just see myself heading backstage with Michael Grady and hanging around with one of my favorite songwriters.

Upon arrival at our destination – which if memory hasn’t failed me, was called the 321 Club – I found out how the red-headed stepchild feels when he has taken the belle to the ball.

We get through the door and I look around and Michael Grady is nowhere to be found.

I’d been ditched.

I don’t know if Michael Grady made it backstage or not. I know I didn’t.

Steve was fighting all kinds of demons back then – and, from best I can tell, still is. But I remember he put on a great show. I also remember how he bit off the head of a the poor dude who had the temerity to yell “Play Copperhead Road.’’

Steve was savage, saying something to the effect of “I’ve been doing what I do for 20 years now playing these shows and I think I know more about what to play and when to play it than anybody sitting in the #%&@%* audience.’’

Well then.

Sobriety saved Steve Earle, unlike so many other of my favorite artists over the years. And in the time since he sobered up and got straight, he has given us all so many reasons to be thankful.

I’ve got a big reason to be thankful today. Steve Earle is playing the Stevens Center and I’ll be attendance, third-row balcony with my bride and one of our best friends in the world.

The show is billed, in part, as a commemoration of his Copperhead Road album released 30 years ago.

Just the same, I’ll let somebody else yell for Steve Earle to play the title song.

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