Country, folk and rock singer-songwriter Steve Earle came up in Nashville in the mid-1970s, where he cut his teeth as a member of Guy Clark's band. Earle wouldn't remain in Nashville for his whole life -- within the decade, in fact, he left Music City for Texas -- but his unique proximity to one of the genre's most exciting songwriting hubs has left an indelible mark on his musical style.
From writing his own masterful signature songs to penning hits for country's highest echelon of legendary performers -- and even earning a co-writer credit on one hit song without even being in the room! -- Earle's prowess as a songwriter is well-documented. Read on as we count down the Top 5 songs Earle has written.
"Sometimes She Forgets"Travis Tritt's 'Greatest Hits: From the Beginning' (1995)
"Sometimes She Forgets" was a hit for Travis Tritt in 1995, peaking at No. 7 in the U.S., but the song's origins date back about 15 years. Earle also included the song on a 1995 acoustic album called Train a Comin', and in the liner notes for that project, he explains that he wrote it in 1979, before he had a record deal.
Four studio albums later, Earle still hadn't cut the track, and a mounting struggle with drug addiction threatened his career -- so much so, in fact, that his team began to float the songs he'd written but not recorded yet around to other artists. Tritt picked up the song, and the rest is history -- with the added good news that Earle ultimately got sober and released his own version of the track.
"The Devil's Right Hand"From The Highwaymen's 'The Road Goes on Forever' (1995)
Another product of Earle's early-career Nashville days that didn't wind up being recorded until several years after it was written, "The Devil's Right Hand" ultimately found a home on the singer's 1998 Copperhead Road album. The murder ballad that celebrates the siren song of a loaded gun became a fan favorite for Earle after he recorded it; however, before it did, the song made its way into the discography of some serious country royalty.
Years before Earle released his version, Waylon Jennings cut the tune, including it on his 1986 album Will the Wolf Survive. For an ace Nashville songwriter such as Earle, having one legendary performer cut your track might not be a big deal -- but how about four?
That's right: On their 1995 project The Road Goes on Forever, country supergroup the Highwaymen (consisting of Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson) also released a version of "The Devil's Right Hand."
"Kerosene"From Miranda Lambert's 'Kerosene' (2005)
Earle, a co-writer on Miranda Lambert's debut single? Yep, it really happened -- but not the way you might think. Technically, Lambert was alone in the room the day she wrote her breakout hit. However, after she finished the song, she realized that it sounded an awful lot like Earle's 1996 song "Feel Alright."
"I didn't purposefully plagiarize -- but unconsciously I copied it almost exactly," the singer explained in a now-archived No Depression interview, according to CMT. "I guess I'd listened to it so much that I just kind of had it in there."
Always one to give songwriters their due, Lambert immediately added Earle as a co-writer, making sure that he would continue to receive his rightful share of the song's royalties.
"Copperhead Road"From 'Copperhead Road' (1988)
Though the song is frequently covered and is a staple of many a country band's live set, Earle's original remains the definitive version of "Copperhead Road." Arguably his career song, the song tells the story of John Lee Pettimore III, a narrator who comes from a long line of moonshiners, and returns home after serving in the Vietnam War to grow marijuana on the Copperhead Road land that he has inherited.
The song's story remains vivid in the imagination of country music today. Thomas Rhett, Luke Combs, Chase Rice and Riley Green are just a few of the new generation of artists that have referenced "Copperhead Road" in the lyrics to their songs. It's a common live cover, too, with acts such as Brothers Osborne making the song a fixture onstage.
"Guitar Town"From Emmylou Harris' 'At the Ryman' (1992)
The title track and second single from Earle's debut studio album, "Guitar Town" became a hit for the then-rising singer-songwriter in 1986. The song also helped win Earle two Grammy Awards, Best Country Song and Best Country Male Vocalist, in 1987.
"Guitar Town" helped launch Earle's career in the late '80s, but in the early '90s, it would accomplish an even bigger feat. In 1992, Emmylou Harris and her then-new backing band, the Nash Ramblers, included "Guitar Town" on the live album At the Ryman. At the time, the fabled downtown Nashville auditorium wasn't the shining Mecca of country music that it is today; in fact, there had been no public concerts there since the Grand Ole Opry relocated from the venue in 1974. Harris asked permission to play at the Ryman for a set that she describes as a "travelogue of American music," USA Today reported in 2017. The setlist consisted of a hand-picked selection of cover songs and iconic American classics, including "Guitar Town."
It is largely thanks to that performance -- and the acclaim that followed Harris' recording of it -- that the Ryman has been restored into the illustrious music destination beloved by country fans everywhere today. While Harris was the one who recorded the project, it would never have been possible without Earle's legendary songwriting talent.