I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but I happen to be a huge Steve Earle fan. I find the Virginia-born, Texas-inspired, former drug addict, political activist, actor/radio personality, singer-songwriter, and country-rock star simply irresistible. He is gifted with an instinctive ear for music (which he has generously passed on to his son, Justin Townes Earle), a curious mind, a keen awareness of the world and an empathetic heart.
Given these qualities, one of Earle’s most indelible contributions to country music will be as a songwriter. His empathy, awareness of the world around him and curiosity have allowed him to musically explore the human soul. He is uniquely unafraid to step out of himself and into another’s shoes, to feel another’s joy and pain and to tell his or her story. In many ways, Earle is “the seeker” he sings of in his song of the same title:
You can’t always believe your eyes
It’s your heart that sees through all the lies
And the first answer follows the first question asked
The mystery unmasked by the seeker
Earle broke onto the country scene singing songs with insight into the rock ‘n roll lifestyle, love and small towns. He moved on to tales of soldiers, bad boys and drugs (with no implied connection between the three). Later Earle unabashedly thrust himself into the realm of history, world politics and religion However, through it all, Earle’s music has remained true to the man and his apparent musical philosophy: seek the truth.
Whatever you want to say about Earle’s politics, very few of his songs, whether dealing with simple emotions or complicated situations, reflect anything other than that one maxim. To accomplish that end, Earle typically thrusts himself in the role of the protagonist, whether he goes by the pronoun “I” or refers to himself as Billy Austin or John Lee Pettimore. In this role, he rarely judges, but explores the potential thoughts, feelings and motivations of his assumed characters.
For example, in “What’s a Simple Man To Do?” Earle doesn’t comment on the immigration debate that occasionally flairs in Washington, he simply steps into the shoes of one man caught up in the dehumanizing political tug-of-war and tells his story. And in “Ellis Unit One,” Earle doesn’t espouse his strong views on the death penalty, but simply takes on the persona of a veteran and second generation prison guard who lives with the burden of working on death row. Regardless of your political persuasion, these songs stand alone as beautiful, emotionally honest stories.
Earle also seeks the truth in a range of emotions. Nobody is better at hitting on a specific emotion than Earle, whether it be slaying loneliness with songs such as “My Old Friend the Blues,” “South Nashville Blues” and “Lonelier Than This;” or tugging the heartstrings with “I Don’t Want To Lose You Yet,” “Sometimes She Forgets,” and “Poison Lovers.” He even kicks restlessness and rebelliousness in the arse with “The Week of Living Dangerously,” “Angry Young Man” and “The Devil’s Right Hand.”
Unsurprisingly, one of Earle’s most controversial songs may also provide the most striking insight into the man himself. Without commenting on whether or not I agree with “John Walker’s Blues” (or intending to start a discussion on it), the motivation behind Earle’s decision to write the song tells a lot about the man and how he perceives his role as a songwriter:
“I checked into a hotel, turned on my laptop and put in ‘islam.com’,” he says. “I was looking for a chorus. I found it as a sound file: ‘A shadu la ilaha illa Allah’. Then I sat up all night and wrote a song designed to piss some very important people off. But the main reason I did it was to humanise a young man that everybody seemed determined to vilify.”
It’s hard to hate and easy to love a songwriter who approaches his craft with such an intense focus on honesty and humanity. And if country music is truly “three chords and the truth,” Earle is (or should be, in my opinion) one of its greats.
Who is your favorite songwriter and why?
Thanks to your guidance, I’ve been digging deeper into Earle’s catalog lately and have been enjoying myself quite a bit.
My favorite songwriters include Darrell Scott (perhaps one of my favorites), Radney Foster, Bruce Robison, Rodney Crowell, Kris Kristofferson, Gretchen Peters, Leslie Satcher and the list could go on forever if I start listing major recording artists who are also writers (though Crowell would fall into that category).
Dallas Frazier – he was the top dog among Nashville writers for a decade, capable of writing songs with a gritty realism but also capable of writing sentimental songs and riotous novelties
Second behind Frazier would be the more prolific Harlan Howard
How could I have failed to include Harlan Howard on my list? I like Frazier, but really prefer Howard.
The list could be endless, but if I had to pick out eight more to make a top ten it would be (in order):
Hank Williams, Sr.
Felice & Boudleaux Bryant
Merle Haggard (if I recall correctly, Hag has written the most songs to reach #1 on Billboard’s Country Chart)
Tom T Hall
and I’d feel bad about leaving off Leon Payne, Fred Rose, Dean Dillon, James Taylor, Roger Miller, Kacey Jones, Billy Edd Wheeler, Carly Simon, Buck Owens and Paul Overstreet off the list
Dolly Parton, Matraca Berg, Hugh Prestwood, Todd Snider, Rodney Crowell, Kim Richey, Alan Jackson, Jon Vezner, Darrell Scott.
Madonna, John Lennon. I may like both of these more than nearly all of the country writers I’ve listed.
I’d add Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet to my list. And, of course, Willie Nelson and Hank Williams.
Hank Williams, Harlan Howard, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, George Jones, Kostas, Matraca Berg, Lori McKenna, Radney Foster, Emory Gordy Jr. and Patty Loveless (quality here, not quantity, for “Big Chance” alone, Loveless-Gordy deserve inclusion ;))
Non Country?…Lennon-McCartney, Henley-Frey, and J.C. Fogerty
Oh, and Jim Lauderdale, yes, Jim Lauderdale..
Matraca Berg, Marcus Hummon, Don Schlitz, Bob McDill, Rodney Crowell, Townes Van Zant, Vince Melamed, Darrell Scott, Alan Jackson, Harlan Howard, Chuck Cannon, Leslie Satcher, Bill Anderson, Patrick Jason Matthews, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kim Richey, Kris, Merle, Hank Sr. and Hugh Prestwood.
My top 5 on this list are Berg, Hummon, Prestwood, TVZ and Rodney Crowell.
How did I forget Willie?????
Have to agree with Kevin about John Lennon…
I typed Fred Rose twice – the second Fred Rose should be replaced with Billy Yates
For non-country writers I’d list Johnny Mercer,Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn and E.Y Harburg before any Rock era song writer then I’d add such writers as Carol King, Chuck Berry, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon,
I’m just going to let my slobbering hatred of John Lennon come out- why does this idiot have to show up on everyone’s list of “Greatest (Fill in the Blank) Ever.” He was completely useless!
After having offended everyone, and in case anyone cares my picks are
Tom T Hall
Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz
Van Stephenson and Dave Robbins
James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich
and Otis Redding, for “These Arms Of Mine.”
Harsh words for Lennon.
I looked up songs that Don Schlitz has written and I have to say, I’m going to have to move him up my list. I knew he was a great writer, but I mostly associated him with Paul Overstreet, Randy Travis and “The Gambler”. Here’s a list of songs that he’s written…and I left off the songs I didn’t recognize:
Alabama, “40 Hour Week for A Living”
Mark Chesnutt, “Almost Goodbye”
Paul Overstreet, “Ball And Chain”
Kathy Mattea & Tim O’Brien, “The Battle Hymn of Love”
Sara Evans, “Cheatin’”
Paul Overstreet, “Daddy’s Come Around”
Randy Travis, “Deeper Than A Holler”
Randy Travis, “Forever And Ever Amen”
Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”
Lorie Morgan, “Good As I Was to You”
Kenny Rogers, “the Greatest”
The Judds, “Gardian Angel”
Mary Chapin Carpenter, “He Thinks He He’ll Keep Her”
Randy Travis, “Heroes And Friends”
Mary Chapin Carpenter, “I Feel Lucky”
The Judds, “I Know Where I’m Going”
Mary Chapin Carpenter, “I Take My Chances”
John Berry, “I Think About All The Time”
Collin Raye, “I Think About You”
Tanya Tucker, “I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love”
Paul Overstreet, “If I Could Bottle This Up”
George Strait, “If You Can Do Anything Else”
SHeDaisy, “In Terms of Love”
Garth Brooks, “Learning To Live Again”
Ty Herndon, “Loved Too Much”
Sweethearts of The Rodeo, “Midnight Girl, Sunset Town”
Tanya Tucker, “My Arms Stay Open All Night”
Mary Chapin Carpenter & Joe Diffie, “Not Too Much to Ask”
Randy Travis, “On the Other Hand”
Reba McEntire, “One Promise Too Late”
Randy Travis, “Point of Light”
Paul Overstreet, “Richest Man on Earth”
Pam Tillis, “The River And The Highway”
The Judds, “Rockin’ With The Rhythm of the Rain”
Sweethearts of the Rodeo, “Satisfy You”
Suzy Bogguss, “She Said, He Heard”
Tanya Tucker, “Strong Enough to Bend”
The Judds, “Turn It Loose”
Keith Whitley or Alison Krauss, “When You Say Nothing At All”
Lee Ann Womack, “Why They Call It Falling”
A member of the Beatles was completely useless? Seriously?
Some of my favorite writers have been Matraca Berg, Harlan Howard, Dottie West, Gretchen Peters, and Jude Johnstone
But some of my favorite songs lyrically(not necessarily vocally) have all been written by one woman. K.T. Oslin, I have said it multiple times.
Songs such as
“I’ll Always Come Back”
“Come Next Monday”
“Didnt Expect it to go down this way”
“Round the Clock Lovin”
“Mary and Willie”
“Maybe we should learn to tango”
the list goes on and on and on and on. I love her writing
Mac Davis (“In The Ghetto”, and other latter-day Elvis hits)