Lauren St. John
I n an inspired fit of secular humanism, Steve Earle, who partied like a rock star long before he actually was one, once invited some evangelizing Jehovah's Witnesses into his house. As they bid for his salvation, Earle pulled out a pipe and began to smoke crack, while pointing out that if a predetermined number of people were heaven-bound, they shouldn't be lowering their own chances by fishing for more recruits.
If this anecdote suggests the fertility that Earle's epic and hilarious life promises biographers, it also points up some of the challenges: the memories of a peripatetic junkie artist are, at the very least, slightly skewed by rampant drug use, and need to be supplemented with lots of journalistic legwork. So it's understandable, if not forgivable, that Lauren St. John wasn't up to the task of background investigation and instead relied on a pastiche of quotes from Earle, his family, and his bandmates for the long-awaited biography Hardcore Troubador: The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle. The book often reads like the Earle family Christmas newsletter; St. John admits in her acknowledgments that she became friends with Earle, and has maintained no professional distance between herself and her subject.
A personal touch to any biography is acceptable, but what's unforgivable about Troubador is that St. John somehow makes Earle ("a runaway at 13 years old, proprietor of five failed marriages, high-profile anti-death penalty activist, and country-rock crossover artist who redefined Nashville and is one of America's acknowledged greatest songwriters") boring. She barely mentions his lyrics; her interest in his drug addiction is academic and superficial; and she follows interesting depictions of watershed events like the writing of Copperhead Road with asinine details of Earle's love life, treating us to gems like, "Steve was more in love with Theresa than he had ever been with anyone."
That said, Troubador is the only biography of Earle, and the brilliance and importance of his life and his art shine beyond St. John's shortcomings. As she herself points out, Earle is usually a little late ("he didn't have a successful album until he was 31") so maybe a biography worthy of its subject will crop up somewhere down the road. BILLY CIUCCI